Starvation looms for six million Afghan refugees

War against terrorism: Aid
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The Independent Online

Six million Afghans will be dependent on donated wheat this winter – a problem that has gripped the attention of the international aid community since the onset of the air attacks on Sunday.

The only reason that the Afghans' plight has not yet drawn the pity of the world is that it is happening a long way from the television cameras.

If the aid agencies can't come up with a solution, large numbers of people will die – not only far from television cameras, but also from the aid convoys, which, now that America has control of the skies, could easily be bombed by mistake.

Andrew Wilder has been the field office director in Pakistan and Afghanistan for Save the Children (United States) for more than five years. He works in one of the most desperately hungry parts of Afghanistan: eight districts in Faryab province, near the northern extreme of the Central Highlands, an area of high, giddily rolling brown hills.

They look as if they have been arid for millennia, but every winter, in the good years, they turned to vivid green, the farmers sowed their wheat and every spring the rain-fed crop sprouted. Drought has gripped this region for three years and now the hills are brown all year round. "A lot of the people have left and gone to camps in Mazar-I-Sharif and Herat," Mr Wilder says. "But half a million remain, and we've been targeting 80 per cent of them.

"They are reaching the end of their survival strategies: selling their livestock and their land, taking the roof beams out of one of their rooms and in some cases even selling their daughters, some as young as 12, to get the bride price. Afghans are very resilient, but even they seem to be reaching the end of their survival mechanisms."

To keep the population alive, Save the Children needs to get 3,000 tons of wheat per month to these eight districts, as well as smaller quantities of pulses and edible food oil – and it needs to get them in now, in the next few weeks, before the roads become impassable. But Afghanistan is again in the grip of war. "The one thing the Taliban did," says a senior aid worker here, "was greatly improve security. From the humanitarian perspective, the collapse of the Taliban could make the situation far worse than it is at present.

"We lost two precious weeks after the attacks on America, during which time the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) suspended convoys ... For two weeks we heard WFP excuses – we need international staff to monitor the deliveries, there are no trucks available ... We ourselves stopped for a couple of days, but after that our office was open again."

All the non-governmental organisations delivering relief in Afghanistan are dependent on the WFP to truck the wheat flour to its six warehouses across the country. Without the deliveries, they are high and dry. "Now we have to ask," the official says, "how do we get up to scale?"

After two blank days following the start of air strikes on Sunday, WFP deliveries began again yesterday, but there is no knowing how long they will continue. "Now the US has air supremacy," says a British worker with one of the larger charities, "and that's when it becomes impossible. You can just imagine what will happen. Convoys of food will be bombed." Like the rest of the population, Afghan truckers are tough, but they are unlikely to hang around to be bombed more than once.

The WFP has already thought about the problem. "This year, an airdrop is unavoidable," says Khaled Mansour of the WFP. And he does not mean the symbolic 300 gram lunch packets dropped by the US earlier in the week, but thousands of 50kg sacks of flour, dropped by Ilyushin and Hercules aircraft from 700 feet. "It will be a four-month operation," Mr Mansour says. "We are into the stage of hiring the planes."

But airdrops like this are very expensive – kilogram for kilogram, 12 times the cost of overland deliveries, according to one expert. And they also need to be carefully arranged. "You need a well-marked drop zone," Mr Mansour says. "You need aid workers on the ground to keep people away and to distribute it. And there is the security consideration if you fly low. We will have to have safe passage and security assurances." The Taliban, let it not be forgotten, still have several dozen ground-to-air Stinger missiles.

Others, however, deny that airdrops are the answer. "You can't deal with this scale of problem with air drops alone," Mr Wilder says flatly. "A major concern would be in the event of a power vacuum in Afghanistan and the return of an anarchic situation similar to the pre-Taliban period, when convoys could well be looted."

The severity of the problems in Afghanistan were known about long before the air strikes started. But the US and UK began the strikes anyway, all but blocking the narrow window before the onset of winter.

"This week," Nick Roseveare of Oxfam says, "justifying the military plan as timely and appropriate, Tony Blair said, 'the humanitarian plan is in place'. It's not true."