Anatomy of a Crisis 005: Devastating Famine: How War in Ukraine Deepens Food Insecurity in Afghanistan
Over 13,000 Afghan babies have died in 2022 after being born prematurely, likely due to maternal malnutrition. Mothers are crying in the night because they can’t feed their children. Afghans are selling their children, their organs, anything they can to afford bread. It sounds too horrific to be true, but this is the reality every day in Afghanistan.
What we thought were our worst nightmares a few months ago is about to get much worse. As Ukraine’s wheat fields turn into battlefields, a food crisis of even more massive proportions is brewing.
According to the UN, about 95% of Afghans do not have enough to eat, and 9 million are at risk of famine. A million children are estimated to be severely malnourished and at immediate risk of death without immediate assistance. Reasons for this devastating food crisis range from climate change induced drought to the Taliban’s inability to attract or manage humanitarian aid. These are all undeniably major contributors.
However, the bottom line is that the crisis is economic. Afghan markets are filled with food; Afghans just cannot afford it. Substantial aid remains frozen in place due to sanctions or banking restrictions, and the Afghan economy continues to flounder.
With the ongoing war in Ukraine, the situation is going from bad to worse. Ukraine and Russia produced a substantial portion of the world’s wheat, corn, barley, and fertilizer, a huge amount of which are now stuck in the region, creating shortages and price increases. As the “breadbasket of the world [turns] to breadlines”, as UN Secretary-General Guterres put it, commodity prices are skyrocketing. Wheat, barley, and fertilizer prices are up at least 21%, 33%, and 40% respectively. In the midst of pre-existing substantial global inflation, these price hikes are particularly harrowing.
In reality, the global food crisis is just beginning. With reduced exports of fertilizer and animal feed out of the region, global production will suffer. In Ukraine alone, grain planting could be cut in half. The agricultural ramifications of Russia’s attack on Ukraine will be felt for years to come, and dramatically increased famine and death around the world will be the long-term result.
Rising food prices will particularly affect the most vulnerable as we enter what the UN is calling the world’s worst food crisis since World War II. Wealthier countries are better able to absorb the price shocks, but poorer countries might be priced out of the market almost altogether.
Even aid will not be enough. As food and transport prices rise dramatically, aid agencies will not be able to afford to offer the support they want to. The issue is partially logistical since 50% of World Food Program wheat was supplied by Ukraine and partially about resources since a dollar does not go nearly as far to cover the food costs anymore.
Furthermore, due in part to the Taliban’s deplorable decision to ban girls from secondary school, the international community’s pledges fell far short of the goals the UN set out in order to assist Afghanistan’s most vulnerable. After the UN’s record-setting request for $4.4 billion to provide essentials to approximately 23 million Afghans in need of food assistance, only $2.44 billion was pledged. This simply is not enough.
So what can be done?
The world must work with great intentionality and efficiency to ensure the World Food Program can collect the financial and physical resources it needs to protect vulnerable lives around the world. Afghanistan is not the only country affected by Russia’ invasion of Ukraine; vulnerable states from Lebanon to Egypt to Yemen are scrambling to make ends meet for citizens, in the midst of reduced donor attention. Even amongst all this need, the WFP is still billions short of its funding goal. Rations have been cut in half in Yemen due to funding shortages, and they do not have even half of the money needed to prevent human catastrophe in Afghanistan.
In the long term, the world must focus on diversifying food supply chains and making vulnerable economies more sustainable and independent. In many places this means improving agricultural practices; Afghanistan would certainly benefit from this, especially developing and implementing better practices to deal with drought-like weather. Despite Afghanistan’s substantial agricultural capacity, their development framework needs to focus on crafting stronger overall macroeconomic structure, consistency in opening and managing borders, addressing the cash crunch, and doing everything possible to lower import costs.
These changes need to be implemented rapidly to save lives even beyond starvation. Food crises don’t just directly affect people’s lives by causing famine; they increase the likelihood of domestic and regional conflict. Clashes between Iran and Afghanistan over water rights to support agricultural sectors have already been ongoing for decades. As food becomes scarce, clashes like this will only increase.
The path ahead is ominous—not just for Afghanistan, but for the world. The only way to avoid famine and unspeakable human suffering is to decisively reorient our food markets by altering supply chains and aggressively providing food aid to the most vulnerable countries. Otherwise, Afghanistan may be facing a situation far worse than our worst fears for this last winter.