Drought And Economic Turmoil Push Afghanistan To Brink Of Hunger Catastrophe : Consider This from NPR Afghanistan is facing its worst drought in decades, but that's not the only reason it is on the verge of a hunger crisis. After the Taliban took over, much of the country's international development aid was suspended, and the United States froze $9.5 billion in Afghan government assets. The economy has plummeted.

Richard Trenchard, country director for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Afghanistan, explains what he's heard from farmers and herders.

PBS NewsHour special correspondent Jane Ferguson recently returned from a reporting trip in the country, where she saw hospital wards filling up with malnourished babies and toddlers.

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Half Of Afghanistan's Population Faces Acute Food Insecurity. Here's Why.

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Richard Trenchard was in western Afghanistan this week talking with farmers and herders. And what he heard, it's bad.

RICHARD TRENCHARD: I spoke to farmers who'd lost 80, 90% of their crop. The livestock owners similarly are being forced to sell their animals, or they're seeing their animals die because of a lack of pasture, a lack of food.

KELLY: Trenchard is the country director of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Afghanistan. He said he met whole families forced from their land by a brutal drought. They were sleeping on the street in the city of Herat in freezing temperatures.

TRENCHARD: This was young children. It was older children. It was mothers, grandmothers, fathers. It's really tough. No one wants to choose that. You do that when you have absolutely no other choice but to leave.

KELLY: The U.N. says that more than 23 million people in Afghanistan will face acute food insecurity in the coming months. That's more than half the population.

TRENCHARD: Your whole day is consumed thinking about where to get the next meal from. You're skipping meals. Perhaps your children are eating, but you're not. And you are selling everything you've got.

KELLY: And the consequences of this crisis are showing up in Afghan hospitals. Jane Ferguson, a special correspondent for "PBS NewsHour," saw that firsthand on a recent reporting trip.

JANE FERGUSON: The child malnutrition wards have been filling up with premature babies, newborn babies and toddlers who are struggling severely with what the aid agencies called SAM, severe acute malnutrition. It makes them sick. It makes them vulnerable to infection. It makes them difficult to feed, difficult to keep food down. It basically spirals into a health crisis for a whole tiny, tiny generation.


KELLY: CONSIDER THIS. In Afghanistan, drought, political upheaval and economic collapse have created a perfect storm for a humanitarian crisis.


KELLY: From NPR, I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It's Wednesday, November 17.

It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. The crisis in Afghanistan was kicked off by a drought, the worst in more than 30 years according to the U.N.'s Richard Trenchard. But it wasn't just a drought. There were the months of intense fighting this year that displaced more than half a million people, bringing the total to more than 4 million. Then there's the economy.

TRENCHARD: In the last two, three months, what we've had is this economic implosion, which has caused a total liquidity crisis. The banks aren't working. Business isn't working.

KELLY: Afghanistan's economy was already fragile, highly dependent on international development aid. After the U.S. withdrew from the country and the Taliban took over, lots of that funding was put on pause. The IMF suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, citing questions about the legitimacy of the Taliban government, so did the World Bank, which said it was monitoring the transition and concerned about what it meant for women. And the U.S. froze $9.5 billion of assets that belonged to the Afghanistan central bank. Here's Trenchard.

TRENCHARD: The suspension of so much development aid, which had underpinned so many vital services the last few years in health, in education, also in agriculture - so all those things combined mean that a really bad drought crisis has now become something far deeper, far more complex. And it's a national crisis now.


KELLY: Another person who has seen all of this firsthand, Jane Ferguson, the "PBS NewsHour" special correspondent. She's been visiting Afghan hospitals and hearing the stories of families she met there. She spoke with my co-host Audie Cornish about her reporting.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: I know you were able to actually speak to parents. What are they telling you about this experience?

FERGUSON: A lot of people in Afghanistan and those parents that you meet in these hospitals are families that were provided for by someone who perhaps had day labor. A casual worker would have worked hand-to-mouth day to day. And the trickle-down effect, or the knock-on of the financial collapse has meant that that kind of work has dried up. You know, construction sites and trash collection, this kind of thing - if you're looking at a population that was already extremely poor, even by the standards of Afghanistan, that's what those parents are telling me. It's that, you know, they were just about able to feed themselves before. They didn't have any safety net, which would be savings or a line of credit or some family that could help. That doesn't exist for millions of Afghans.

On top of that, you also have even the staff in the hospitals, middle-class, educated Afghans, haven't been paid in months, so even they are struggling to feed their kids. So it's really a complete cash crunch - worth also mentioning that even if you have savings in the bank, because the country's foreign assets have been frozen in an effort to make sure that the Taliban doesn't access them, banks in Afghanistan have basically enacted severe capital controls. You can only get $200 a week out of your bank account, so even if you have money in the bank, you can't access it.

CORNISH: Winter is falling on the country. There are many people who now risk exposure to freezing temperatures. I know you spoke with a Taliban leader. What are they saying? I mean, they must be facing some pressure just to feed people.

FERGUSON: They're under huge pressure. You know, if they cannot deliver, if they end up having to take ownership of a famine, that is a disastrous situation for them. They have been very much so putting forward to the international community their best foot, saying, look, we're open to aid workers. We would like to welcome all people who are trying to help the Afghan people. You know, it's a big 180, of course. For the last 20 years, they've been killing, attacking, kidnapping both Afghan and foreign aid workers relentlessly and not recognizing the humanitarian work or the neutrality of humanitarian workers. So they're putting a big push on to try to get the aid agencies back in because they're very well aware that the public support will not be there for them. Whatever public support they have - it's very hard to gauge - will absolutely flatline if they cannot run a functioning country.

They're also well aware that they haven't fed their own soldiers. The Taliban fighters that occupy these cities across the country are not getting salaries. That's a very dangerous situation - to have men with guns and hungry stomachs. So they're well aware that this situation could spiral. As you say, the winter is coming, and in Afghanistan, winters are incredibly brutal. Especially in the north, in the capital of Kabul, you know, you get snowfall in the mountains. So people are going to be desperate. Their ability to buy fuel, to stay warm, has never been more stretched thin across the country. Every year in refugee camps, you do get deaths from small children who die of hypothermia, even in the best of times. This winter is likely to be an extremely bitter one.

CORNISH: We started this conversation with your reporting in a children's ward, which is always going to be kind of a hard assignment - right? - to bear witness to. Were there any signs of hope there or even in the country that you're coming away with?

FERGUSON: You know, it's funny you should ask that because I was just sitting down yesterday and today to write a script for our next piece, and I used the word hope because I did visit one place that has always, over the years of reporting in Afghanistan, given me hope, which was the Red Cross Center in Kabul. You know, one ray of hope is that we have to remember at least the fighting, for now, has stopped. There are a lot of very upsetting and frightening things happening in Afghanistan right now, but at least the quote, unquote, "war fighting" has largely ended. What this has meant is that people who otherwise wouldn't have been able to access the city, who couldn't travel those treacherously dangerous roads because of IEDs, checkpoints, banditry - that has actually opened up for people.

So when you went to the Red Cross Center in Kabul, where they fit people with high-quality, free prosthetics for amputees and people with disabilities - and what I saw when I walked in were Taliban fighters, former government soldiers and civilians all sitting together, learning to walk again, trying to get better prosthetics, just trying, in a time of peace, to get healed. And I think that we have to remember that the one bright ray of hope for now is the lack of fighting, the lack of violence on a war level. I don't know how long that'll last, but I can feel, in some rural areas, people starting to breathe.


KELLY: That's Jane Ferguson, special correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, talking about her reporting trip in Afghanistan with my colleague Audie Cornish. It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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