Deepening food crisis compounds Afghanistan’s problems

Internally displaced Afghan families, who fled from Kunduz and Takhar province due to battles between Taliban and Afghan security forces, collect food in Kabul. (AFP/File Photo)
Internally displaced Afghan families, who fled from Kunduz and Takhar province due to battles between Taliban and Afghan security forces, collect food in Kabul. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 08 September 2021

Deepening food crisis compounds Afghanistan’s problems

Internally displaced Afghan families, who fled from Kunduz and Takhar province due to battles between Taliban and Afghan security forces, collect food in Kabul. (AFP/File Photo)
  • UN World Food Programme’s GCC head spoke to Arab News about war-torn country’s needs
  • Up to 14 million identified as food insecure, including 550,000 displaced by conflict this year

DUBAI: At the end of August, with the Taliban in control of most provinces of Afghanistan, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres cautioned that the country’s humanitarian and economic crises were getting worse, despite evacuation flights for civilians from Kabul airport coming to an end.

Expressing his concern over the situation and the threat of a total collapse in basic services, he said: “Now more than ever, Afghan children, women, and men need the support and solidarity of the international community.”

The circumstances suggest Guterres was right on the money. The combined effects of a severe drought, conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic have made even the simplest of preparations for winter in Afghanistan difficult for international aid organizations.

The UN has said that 18 million out of Afghanistan’s population of 38 million are facing a humanitarian disaster, with the potential of another 18 million joining them.

A senior official of the UN World Food Program has told Arab News of the organization’s concerns, just days after it appealed for money to purchase and “preposition” food for millions of Afghans before winter snows cut off access roads to them.

Mageed Yahia, the WFP’s UAE country director and representative for the Gulf Cooperation Council region, said: “We need money urgently. As I speak, we need around $200 million just to get us from September to December, or our pipeline will break. As early as October, our pipeline of wheat will run out.”

He identified the funds crunch as the biggest challenge facing the program, the other ones being lack of security and stability, and the weather. He said even $200 million was a “drop in the ocean” in comparison with the money required to cover actual needs. A WFP estimate has put the country’s total food-funding requirements for this year at $559 million.

Yahia warned that if widespread hunger was not prevented in Afghanistan, it could lead to mass migration and more conflicts, the costs of which would dwarf the amount currently sought by the WFP.




A child(C) looks at the aircraft as he is strolled towards his flight during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 24, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

“I think it is important to realize that the cost to the international community would be far less if the problem was tackled now instead of being allowed to grow out of control,” he added.

Citing Syria as a cautionary tale, he pointed out that in 2015, when the WFP ran out of funds in the war-torn Arab country, large numbers of people used rickety boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea and reach Europe.

In Afghanistan, the WFP has a staff of 300, including locals and foreign nationals, who operate from sub-offices in Kabul, Jalalabad, Faizabad, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kandahar, and Herat.

UN officials have said the turmoil in the country has not affected WFP operations and that all programs are running according to plan.

The WFP said it remained “dedicated to maintaining its guiding principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and operational independence.”

At the same time, Yahia noted that “protection is being provided to WFP food convoys, buildings, and staff” in Afghanistan.

Before the arrival of Afghanistan’s bitterly cold winter season, the WFP typically starts planning several months in advance. Yahia described the process as “winterization — buying food from wherever it is available closest, be it in Pakistan, Kazakhstan, or even sometimes Afghanistan, then transporting it and, finally, stocking it.”

So far, high summer temperatures have masked the hardships that lie ahead for the Afghan people in winter. Summer is the time of year when the WFP “prepositions” food stocks in warehouses and with communities throughout Afghanistan. The food is then distributed to needy people before access to them is cut off by the winter snows.




Afghan people sit inside a US military aircraft to leave Afghanistan, at the military airport in Kabul on August 19, 2021 after Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. (AFP/File Photo)

But the hot summers were also to blame for what he said was Afghanistan’s second-biggest drought in the past three years.

“We are talking about more than 40 percent of the country. Crops have been lost to this drought, leaving families with incomes that are not enough even to buy food,” he added.

INNUMBERS

* 14m - Afghans who are food insecure.

* $200m - Money needed by WFP until end of 2021.

* 550,000 - Afghans displaced by conflict this year.

* 2m - Malnourished children.

Over half of Afghanistan’s population lives below the poverty line because conflict and lack of safety have cut off entire communities from livelihood opportunities.

At least 14 million people have been identified as food insecure, including 550,000 who have been displaced by conflict since the beginning of the year.

“The conflict did not materialize in just the last few weeks. It has been ongoing for several years. This has resulted in large population displacements,” Yahia said.

The hunger emergency comes on top of a humanitarian crisis prompted by the withdrawal of US and NATO troops and the rapid reconquest of the country by the Taliban.

The UN has pointed out that 18 million Afghans depend on international aid for survival. Getting that aid into the country during a turbulent period has proved enormously difficult as commercial aircraft have been unable to land at Kabul airport.

Displacement has resulted in large numbers of Afghans having no access to work and food supplies, making them entirely dependent on WFP assistance, Yahia added. COVID-19 and its consequences have also affected the lives and livelihoods of people, who struggle to put food on the table even in normal times.




Children from the Internally displaced Afghan families arriving from districts of Khan Abad, Ali Abad and Imam Sahib who fled the fighting. (AFP/File Photo)

He noted that following the withdrawal of US and Western troops, many Afghans had been unable to access their money in banks. “Now the banks have opened, but there is limited availability of cash. People can withdraw a maximum of $200 per week. We don’t know for how long the banks will stay open, whether the limits on cash withdrawal will be lifted or tightened.

“If the humanitarian situation deteriorates further, leading to starvation, the world will realize that the conflict goes beyond Afghanistan,” he said.

The WFP, which has had a presence in Afghanistan for almost the last 60 years, distributes food parcels to nearly 400,000 people displaced internally by conflicts over the decades.

It is also assisting 600,000 families affected by the economic impact of COVID-19 by giving each nearly $80 to cover food needs for around two months. Another program provides free meals to schoolchildren.




Mageed Yahia, the World Food Program's UAE country director and representative to the GCC region, warns that many Afghan families have been left without enough income to buy food after drought destroyed their crops. (Supplied)

“So, in total, 5 million people are benefiting from WFP assistance, with food, cash, school meals, and nutritious products for those who are suffering from moderate malnutrition.

“We are scaling up our programs to reach 14 million people in Afghanistan. In the next few weeks, we need to scale up by another 9 million,” Yahia added.

The UN is planning to hold a high-level conference on aid for Afghanistan on Sept. 13 in Geneva, which will be attended by Guterres.

His spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said: “The conference will advocate for a swift scale-up in funding so the lifesaving humanitarian operation can continue; and appeal for full and unimpeded humanitarian access to make sure Afghans continue to get the essential services they need.”

On Friday, according to the Emirates News Agency, the UAE sent a plane carrying urgent medical and food aid to Afghanistan, and a Qatar foreign ministry official said Doha was working to facilitate the opening of humanitarian corridors. The US has also resumed funding for humanitarian aid programs that were halted after the Taliban took control of Kabul.


Austria plans to lift lockdown, but not for the unvaccinated

Austria plans to lift lockdown, but not for the unvaccinated
Updated 07 December 2021

Austria plans to lift lockdown, but not for the unvaccinated

Austria plans to lift lockdown, but not for the unvaccinated
  • A week before that general lockdown, people not fully vaccinated against coronavirus had been placed under lockdown
  • Details still need to be ironed out at a meeting on Wednesday between the government and the influential governors of Austria’s nine provinces

VIENNA: Unvaccinated individuals will continue to stay in lockdown even after Austria lifts its wider coronavirus measure for the general public on Sunday, Chancellor Karl Nehammer confirmed on Tuesday, a day after he took office.
Austria’s two-week-old lockdown aimed to counter a surge in daily COVID-19 infections to record levels, with restaurants, bars, theaters, museums and non-essential shops shut to all but take-away business. Hotels are closed to tourists.
A week before that general lockdown, people not fully vaccinated against coronavirus had been placed under lockdown, barring them from roughly the same places that are now shut, and allowed to leave home only for the same few reasons as the public now, such as going to work.
“The lockdown for the unvaccinated is staying,” Nehammer told a news conference, while confirming that the wider curbs would be lifted on Sunday as planned.
However, details still need to be ironed out at a meeting on Wednesday between the government and the influential governors of Austria’s nine provinces.
“For all the unvaccinated who are suffering from the fact they are staying in lockdown, there is a clear offer: you can come out of it if you seize the chance to get vaccinated,” Nehammer said, adding that his aim was to encourage as many as possible to get their first dose of vaccine.
Asked if restaurants and hotels would re-open at the weekend, Nehammer said that had already been agreed with provincial governors and the aim was to re-open businesses as broadly as possible.
The question that remained was what safety measures and curbs needed to be adopted, he added.


Ryanair cancels Morocco flights until February

Ryanair cancels Morocco flights until February
Updated 07 December 2021

Ryanair cancels Morocco flights until February

Ryanair cancels Morocco flights until February
  • Move follows government ban on all arrivals to combat spread of omicron variant
  • Irish carrier is largest airline in Europe, which is facing severe COVID-19 outbreak

LONDON: Ryanair, Europe’s largest airline, has canceled all flights to Morocco until February 2022.

The move follows a total ban by the Moroccan government on flights arriving in the North African country until Dec. 13 to combat the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19.

It is not yet clear whether the ban will extend beyond the initial December deadline.

Other countries, including Japan and Israel, have also implemented stringent flight bans in an attempt to prevent the spread of the new variant.

Irish carrier Ryanair usually flies thousands of flights a day across Europe and beyond. The continent’s COVID-19 outbreak is far worse than many other places in the world, including Morocco, which recorded just 90 cases in the last 24 hours compared with 50,000 in Britain.


One dead, two missing after building collapses in France

One dead, two missing after building collapses in France
Updated 07 December 2021

One dead, two missing after building collapses in France

One dead, two missing after building collapses in France
  • Two adjacent buildings were also heavily damaged in the blast that occurred in the port at Sanary

SANARY-SUR-MER,France: French rescue workers on Tuesday recovered a man’s body from the rubble of a residential building destroyed overnight in a suspected gas explosion, and were scrambling to find two other people still missing after extracting a woman and a baby alive.
The woman and baby as well as three others were injured in the blast in the Mediterranean coastal city of Sanary-sur-Mer, which was heard from as far as eight kilometers (five miles) away.
“It’s very likely that the victim is the father of the baby,” Houda Vernhet, director of the government’s regional authority for the Var region, told AFP.
He was unconscious when located and declared dead after rescue workers spent more than two hours removing him from the unsteady wreckage of the three-story building.
The two people still missing “are a mother, an elderly woman, and her son” who lived on the ground floor, Vernhet said.
“For now, we haven’t yet found any signs of life from the rubble, but we didn’t hear the baby right away, either,” said Col. Eric Grohin, director of the fire service for the Var department.
Authorities said rescue workers smelled gas when they arrived at the site.
“The causes aren’t known for now. There was smell of gas, but we can’t say anything more while the police inquiry is underway,” the regional authorities said in a statement.
Two adjacent buildings were also heavily damaged in the blast that occurred in the port at Sanary, a city of around 15,000 people southeast of Marseille.


Hedge fund founder Steinhardt will return looted antiquities

Hedge fund founder Steinhardt will return looted antiquities
Updated 07 December 2021

Hedge fund founder Steinhardt will return looted antiquities

Hedge fund founder Steinhardt will return looted antiquities
  • Among the billionaire's collection were items from Egypt, Turkey and Iraq

NEW YORK: Billionaire hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt has agreed to turn over $70 million worth of stolen antiquities and will be subject to an unprecedented lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities, the Manhattan district attorney announced Monday.
In return, Steinhardt, a philanthropist who is chair of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and co-founder of Birthright Israel, an organization that sends young Jews on free trips to Israel, will not face criminal charges for acquiring pieces that were illegally smuggled out of 11 countries including Iraq, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Syria and Turkey, prosecutors said.
“For decades, Michael Steinhardt displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts without concern for the legality of his actions, the legitimacy of the pieces he bought and sold, or the grievous cultural damage he wrought across the globe,” District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said in a news release. “His pursuit of ‘new’ additions to showcase and sell knew no geographic or moral boundaries, as reflected in the sprawling underworld of antiquities traffickers, crime bosses, money launderers, and tomb raiders he relied upon to expand his collection."
Steinhardt said in a prepared statement issued by his attorneys that he was "pleased that the District Attorney’s years-long investigation has concluded without any charges, and that items wrongfully taken by others will be returned to their native countries.”
Attorneys Andrew J. Levander and Theodore V. Wells Jr. said that many of the dealers from whom Steinhardt bought the items “made specific representations as to the dealers’ lawful title to the items, and to their alleged provenance.”
According to prosecutors, while complaining about a subpoena requesting documentation for an antiquity in May 2017, Steinhardt pointed to a small chest from Greece and said to an investigator, “You see this piece? There’s no provenance for it. If I see a piece and I like it, then I buy it.”
Many of the pieces Steinhardt acquired were removed from their countries of origin during times of war or civil unrest, prosecutors said.
Steinhardt, who turns 81 on Tuesday, founded the hedge fund Steinhardt Partners in 1967 and closed it in 1995. He came out of retirement in 2004 to head Wisdom Tree Investments.
New York University named its Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development after Steinhardt in recognition of two $10 million donations.
Manhattan prosecutors began investigating Steinhardt's collection of ancient artifacts in 2017 and raided his office and his Manhattan home in 2018, seizing several artworks that investigators said had been looted.
The items surrendered by Steinhardt include a stag’s head in the form of a ceremonial vessel for libations, dating from to 400 B.C., which prosecutors say appeared without provenance on the international market after rampant looting in Milas, Turkey. The stag's head is valued at $3.5 million, the district attorney said.
There was also the chest for human remains from the Greek Island of Crete, called a larnax and dating from around 1300 B.C., which prosecutors said was purchased from a known antiquities trafficker.


Whistleblower: As Afghanistan fell, UK abandoned supporters

Whistleblower: As Afghanistan fell, UK abandoned supporters
Updated 07 December 2021

Whistleblower: As Afghanistan fell, UK abandoned supporters

Whistleblower: As Afghanistan fell, UK abandoned supporters
  • Thousands of pleas for help via email were unread between Aug. 21 and Aug. 25
  • ‘These emails were desperate and urgent. I was struck by many titles including phrases such as ‘please save my children’

LONDON: Britain’s Foreign Office abandoned many of the nation’s allies in Afghanistan and left them to the mercy of the Taliban during the fall of the capital, Kabul, because of a dysfunctional and arbitrary evacuation effort, a whistleblower alleged Tuesday.
In devastating evidence to a parliamentary committee, Raphael Marshall said thousands of pleas for help via email were unread between Aug. 21 and Aug. 25. The former Foreign Office employee estimated that only 5 percent of Afghan nationals who applied to flee under one UK program received help. At one point, he was the only person monitoring the inbox.
“There were usually over 5,000 unread emails in the inbox at any given moment, including many unread emails dating from early in August,” he wrote to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. “These emails were desperate and urgent. I was struck by many titles including phrases such as ‘please save my children’.”
Former Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who was moved from the Foreign Office to become Justice Secretary after his handling of the crisis, defended his actions.
“Some of the criticism seems rather dislocated from the facts on the ground, the operational pressures that with the takeover of the Taliban, unexpected around the world...” he told the BBC. “I do think that not enough recognition has been given to quite how difficult it was.”
The Taliban stormed across Afghanistan in late summer, capturing all major cities in a matter of days, as Afghan security forces trained and equipped by the US and its allies melted away. The Taliban took over Kabul on Aug. 15.
Many who had worked for Western powers or the government worried that the country could descend into chaos or the Taliban could carry out revenge attacks against them.
Many also feared the Taliban would reimpose the harsh interpretation of Islamic law that they relied on when they ran Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. At the time, women had to wear the all-encompassing burqa and be accompanied by a male relative whenever they went outside. The Taliban banned music, cut off the hands of thieves and stoned adulterers.