A network of critical emergency grain reserves across Afghanistan is set to boost food security and help strengthen resilience in a country that struggles to grow enough food to feed its 31 million people.
“Grain reserves for a country like Afghanistan are absolutely critical,” Gerard Rebello, Head of Logistics & Pipeline at the UN World Food Program (WFP), told IRIN. “Afghanistan is a landlocked country, so there needs to be a mechanism in place in case supplies cannot come in. The country’s annual production does not meet the annual consumption, and it’s a country that has recurrent natural disasters.”
The first of a planned series of Strategic Grain Reserves (SGR), a warehouse with a 22,000 metric ton capacity, opened in late 2013 in the capital, Kabul, at a cost of US$7.7 million.
The WFP-Afghan government project aims to construct depots in various locations that will eventually hold a total of 200,000 metric tons of food – enough to feed two million people for up to six months in times of emergency. SGRs are planned for other cities, including Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, Pul-i-Khumri and Kandahar.
“The 200,000 tons, which is the planned figure, is not a big amount,” said Rebello. “But it is enough to buy time. It’s enough to respond to small disasters while long-term help comes in.”
Mujeed Qarar, a spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL), pointed out that in recent years aid agencies have started shifting their focus to longer-term infrastructure projects. International troop numbers are being drawn down, and humanitarians fear donor funding is likely to diminish as attention turns elsewhere.
In 2009-10, reconstruction started on a separate existing network of long-term silos, which can store grain for up to two years.
Wheat production in 2013 was the highest the country has experienced in the past 30 years, with the harvest estimated at around 6.5 million tons, according to MAIL.
Increased grain production is welcome, but food security is uneven, with poor transport links and distribution networks creating continuing challenges, not least in the winter months, when areas like Badakshan are cut off. Afghanistan is also prone to recurring drought and natural disasters.
National grain deficits are in the main filled by commercial imports from neighbouring Pakistan and Kazakhstan. But the global food price hikes of 2008 showed international markets cannot always be relied upon for freely available and affordable food. That year, wheat flour prices in Afghanistan doubled. The reserves should also bring greater stability to local grain markets.
Internally displaced persons (IDPs) and returned Afghan refugees, who currently number around 536,000, are disproportionally exposed to food insecurity and malnutrition. According to UNICEF’s 2013 mid-year report, the number of Afghans displaced by conflict increased by 7.4 percent from 2011 to 2012.
At the Indira Gandhi hospital in Kabul, a displaced 19-year-old mother, originally from Logar province in eastern Afghanistan, is seeking treatment for her child. “We cannot get my daughter enough food because my husband and other relatives are unemployed, and our harvest was not good this year because of the cold weather,” she said. “We are not doing well economically, that is why she is suffering from malnutrition.”
A report by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) in November 2013 raises concerns about increasing food security issues among IDPs, particularly those in western Herat province, bordering Iran.
Many families struggle during the winter months, when job opportunities are limited and the prices of necessities such as fuel, wood and oil are at their highest.
The head of the malnutrition ward at the Indira Gandhi hospital, Dr Saifullah Abasin, says up to 70 percent of the children in the hospital are underweight, and up to 85 percent are malnourished.
“In the malnutrition ward, we admit up to around 250 patients a month. If the patients are brought in time there may be no deaths – but if they are not brought in time… Of the 250, anywhere from 5 to10 percent of them do not survive,” he said.
A 2012 World Bank report noted that on average, 29 percent of Afghans were not able to meet their daily requirement of 2,100 calories.
Children are particularly vulnerable. According to a WFP statement released in October 2013, 60 percent of children are facing malnutrition. “While security issues related to insurgency and foreign aggression monopolize most discourse in Afghanistan, a lesser noted form of insecurity – food and nutrition shortage – also threatens the country’s prosperity,” said the statement.
A functioning Strategic Grain Reserve network will help provide resources to vulnerable populations, but rising insecurity poses a major challenge for humanitarians looking to provide food assistance.
“Security impacts us from a construction point of view, for example, access to supplies, and monitoring activities,” said Keiko Izushi, WFP’s Head of Donor Relations, Reports and Communications. “As of now, we don’t see any complications, but if the situation becomes worse, these things could become more challenging.”
A growing concern in the aid community is insecurity on roads, which are the principal means of transporting food. In the first eleven months of 2013, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) recorded 266 incidents against humanitarian personnel, facilities and assets.
Corruption can also be a challenge
“A major problem is that officials at the provincial level give distributions to their circle of people first, so rich and powerful people get food first and many times the people who need it, like farmers, do not receive anything,” said an Afghan government official from Kunduz.
Emergency grain supplies have sometimes disappeared on their way to starving farmers in the north of the province. In other cases, government officials have been arrested while diverting food aid to local markets, and elsewhere leading officials have simply helped themselves to stored grain supplies.
“We are aware,” said WFP’s Izushi. “This is why we involve the government – it is part of our capacity building and training – but the state also has to take responsibility.”