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November 06, 2001
2.5 million Afghans face starvation

By Ali Abunimah


November 6, 2001

Although the civilian deaths from US bombing in Afghanistan are horrifying, their number pales compared with how many people are likely to die from starvation as a direct result of the ongoing war. The following statement from Oxfam casts light on the situation.

Ali Abunimah


There is now very little time left to help these people. They have already endured severe drought and 20 years of war. If vital aid does not arrive by mid-November, many families could die this winter.

Oxfam is working hard to ensure that aid reaches the people most in need, but for a variety of reasons, it is becoming increasingly difficult to deliver anything like the amount required to prevent a winter of unimaginable suffering for millions of Afghans.

Oxfam is now calling on all warring parties to allow the safe passage of trucks carrying aid into the country.


Crisis in Afghanistan

Updated: 31/10/01

Humanitarian situation


The 2001 harvest has been about 50 per cent that of a normal year (much lower in some regions), in the third year of a severe drought. Before September 11, 5.5 million Afghans around 20 per cent of the population were already at risk of severe food shortages.

Afghans' vulnerability to this three-year drought (which covers much of central Asia) is increased by deep, underlying poverty, resulting in an annual life expectancy of only 44 years. Some 75 per cent of Afghans do not have safe water, 90 per cent do not have adequate sanitation, and more than 75 per cent do not have access even to the most basic health care. As a result, 25 per cent of children die before the age of five.

In the past year alone, 800,000 people have already been displaced, both within Afghanistan and to the world's two largest hosts of refugees, Pakistan and Iran.

As a result of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.A., and the resulting military action in Afghanistan, thousands of people have fled their homes in the country's major cities, either travelling to remote rural areas or to the borders with Pakistan and Iran.

Current situation

Even before current events, 5.5 million people were already partially, or completely, dependent on food aid, of which 2.5 million will run out of food between now and December, according to the World Food Program (WFP). Of these, 388,000 are facing an acute food shortage and must be reached without delay. According to UN figures, the number of people needing assistance could rise to 7.5 million if sufficient food is not delivered this winter.


The UN's stated aim is to deliver 100,000 tonnes of food aid over the next two months. WFP has said that it is currently delivering 900 tonnes of food to Afghanistan a day and expects to deliver 1,700 tonnes per day from 17th October. Oxfam's calculations are that each family of five people would need 50 kilos of food a month. For 5.5 million people who are partially or fully dependent on food relief, this is roughly 55,000 tonnes per month or 1833 tonnes per day.

However, there has been a clear drop in the ability to deliver inside Afghanistan. In September, 653 tonnes of food were being delivered every day. At present, the quantity has fallen to just 415 tonnes, which is far short of UN targets. This is due to many factors, particularly the increase in insecurity, the physical and psychological effects of bombing, fear and unwillingness on the part of truckers, increased taxes and looting, fuel shortages and a further breakdown of law and order in some parts of the country where NGOs and the UN operate.

Despite WFP's claims that food aid is moving into Afghanistan, we had run out of food at the end of last week. However, since then, 130 tonnes of food has arrived at our warehouses, enough to find 2,600 families for a month. Food may well be moving, but it's not reaching the people who need it at the end of the chain. The key to the food figures debate is understanding the distribution system. Loading up trucks in Pakistan or other neighbouring countries and driving them across the borders into Afghanistan is just the start of the story, not the end. It's a three stage distribution:

Stage 1: WFP contracts trucks in neighbouring countries, to drive food to about 6 WFP warehouses inside Afghanistan. Stage 2: WFP contracts trucks inside Afghanistan to drive food to NGO warehouses. Stage 3: NGOs contract trucks to drive food from their warehouses to the people who need it.

We will now see the critical test of whether WFP can indeed accelerate deliveries to a higher level, perhaps by going directly to NGO-identified areas, as planned. However, the evidence from previous weeks indicates that we are far below the target of 1,700 tonnes per day.


Borders remain closed, except for people visiting relatives, or proving to be in need of urgent medical attention. The Pakistan Government position remains very stern in this regard. There are no new reports about numbers of people at border; still estimated at around 15,000 in Quetta and Pakistan. There is an indication in the press that people have begun coming in larger numbers through informal borders. Those who are travelling at this time or camping out in the open near borders on either side are exposed to extreme temperatures at this stage.

Situation where Oxfam works


As a result of WFP's inability to deliver sufficient quantities of food, Oxfam has begun researching alternative ways of getting food into Afghanistan. There is grain available in neighbouring countries and there will be truckers who are still willing to make the journey. Oxfam will be looking at a range of options; from supporting Novib (Oxfam in the Netherlands) partners in their successful food purchasing and trucking from Turkmenistan, to buying and shipping privately for its own staff and partners to distribute.

There are a number of reasons why WFP is unable to deliver food into Afghanistan, including: truck drivers fear of the possibility of being bombed by US planes; increasing lawlessness and disorder inside Afghanistan; fear of staff to come to work; demands for exorbitant taxes being levied by the Taliban authorities in one location.

These incidents reinforce the need for all sides to give guarantees that they will not target or impede the humanitarian effort.


Although our main concern is over food getting to those in Afghanistan, we are also continuing with plans to respond to refugees fleeing to Pakistan.

The refusal of the Pakistan Government to open the border is a major concern. It appears that it will only do so when camps are ready to take people trying to cross. The unsuitability of many of the sites it has proposed has been a key problem. Oxfam and other agencies (notably UNHCR) have had great difficulties getting access to the proposed refugee sites. However, an Oxfam Technical Adviser recently visited two refugee camps being prepared at the moment in the border town of Chaman, near Quetta.

Recently we have begun providing water and sanitation facilities to 1,000 of the most vulnerable refugees, at a transit camp the Government has allowed to be set up near Chaman.

We are preparing to provide water and sanitation, hygiene promotion and disease control in refugee camps that we believe meet basic requirements. Although it is difficult to predict the number of possible refugees, and if they will be allowed into Pakistan, beyond the immediate situation our plans extend to provide assistance for up to 250,000 refugees. An Oxfam chartered flight of essential equipment for the Pakistan refugee camps landed in Islamabad on October 11. This equipment will be available for use in both Peshawar and Quetta areas.

Oxfam teams for Tajikistan and Iran will also be assessing the possibility of responding to refugees in these countries too.


The Iranian Government has reportedly set up three camps some three miles inside Afghan territory, close to the south-east border with Iran, near Zabol. The authorities claim that the camps will be able to cater for around 200,000 people, although UNHCR expects between 300,000 and 400,000 refugees. Very few displaced people from Afghanistan are officially reported to have arrived in those border camps.