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Afghan Children Face Hunger As Humanitarian Aid Dries Up After Taliban Takeover


UNICEF is warning that at least a million children in Afghanistan are at risk of starvation and death if they don't get the help they need. Political instability that got worse when the Taliban took over and an ongoing drought could push the country into a famine. Anthea Webb is the U.N. World Food Programme's deputy regional director for Asia and the Pacific. She's with us now from Bangkok. Ms. Webb, thanks for being here.

ANTHEA WEBB: Thanks for having me.

KING: This is a stunning warning from UNICEF. How bad is the situation in Afghanistan?

WEBB: You know, I've never seen a situation where 9 out of 10 families that we've talked to report that they're only able to afford bread on a daily basis. Their ability to afford more nutritious food like meat or dairy has gone down to once every two weeks at best.

KING: Nine out of 10 families - and when you ask them why they can't afford food at this moment, what are the reasons that people are telling you?

WEBB: It's pretty simple, really. The drought has reduced the amount of food that people can grow, so crops are down by 40%. Jobs have evaporated, and food prices have gone up. And so that all combines to be a perfect storm for people who were already very poor and on the edge prior to the events of August.

KING: How long has the drought been going on in Afghanistan?

WEBB: The drought has been going on for most of the year. In fact, we started sounding the alarm bells back in February. It's the second drought in less than three years, so the people have not had a chance to recover from the last one, and now they've been hit with this one.

KING: All right. So some of this is environmental, and then possibly also some of this is political. Has the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan affected the WFP's ability to distribute food there?

WEBB: No, we've been working in Taliban-controlled areas for several years now. And what the cessation of fighting means is that we can actually reach a lot more places because there isn't active combat going on. The change has really been that there's been a drop in the amount of money that people can access. So as we said, jobs have evaporated. The country's foreign exchange is mostly blocked now. And therefore, people simply don't have money they need to be able to buy basics like food and health care.

KING: All right. There is another financial situation that seems worth mentioning or asking about. When the Taliban took over, some institutions like the World Bank and the IMF froze aid to Afghanistan. The Biden administration also made some changes. The Taliban cannot access Afghan assets that are being held in U.S. banks. Is that a problem for the work that the U.N. is doing? Does it exacerbate the problem that you're dealing with?

WEBB: No, it's not a direct problem for our operations, per se, but what it is doing is making it much harder for those basic services that are usually provided by a government to be available. So paying health workers, paying police officers - those really fundamental things that people rely on their government to do are now a bit paralyzed. And worse, the banks are closed for the most part, and so even people who had savings can't access them easily.

KING: As part of a U.N. summit that is currently underway, nations have pledged more than a billion dollars in emergency aid to Afghanistan. Now, my understanding is that the WFP will get hundreds of millions of dollars. Talk to me about the plan for that money - how it's going to be spent, where it's going to be spent and how you're making sure it's spent effectively given the need.

WEBB: Yeah. I hope that money starts to flow very soon. Believe me. We've already begun borrowing against it because we cannot afford to be late. The fact is that much of Afghanistan gets blocked by snows in the winter. And so every year, we need to position thousands of tons of wheat flour and peas and cooking oil into those really remote areas. So we've already begun borrowing money and borrowing food from neighboring countries. We've started purchasing and trucking in massive amounts of those basic, basic commodities that people rely on. It's going to be hard. I've got to tell you, it's probably the most daunting operation that we've seen in a very long time, but we can do it if that money is available soon.

KING: Do you believe the money will be available soon? I mean, nations make these pledges. Do they automatically deliver? Is that a concern at all?

WEBB: It's always a concern. Look; I choose to believe that the international community will not let Afghanistan slip over the edge. I don't think it's in anyone's interests, and I'm pretty sure that all of the leaders who spoke at the summit agree. The most important thing now is to get food and basic support to people in their homes because no one wants a situation where they start moving to look for food. That just destabilizes everything.

KING: Talk about what happens when people do start moving for food. I imagine you're talking about internal displacement. I imagine you may also be talking about a refugee crisis of some sort to some degree.

WEBB: Yeah, there are already about 3.5 million people who have left their homes inside Afghanistan, more than half a million of those this year alone. And already, historically, there have been large numbers of refugees that have taken shelter on Afghanistan's borders. And those are situations which are heartbreaking, and they're urgent, and they take a long time to resolve. So kids have have grown up in those camps, and no one wants to see that repeat itself.

KING: All right. So bottom line - if starvation is to be avoided on a mass scale, what needs to happen in the next, let's say, four weeks?

WEBB: So we need to have confirmation of those $200 million that the World Food Programme needs. We need countries around the borders to offer free passage to lift export bans on some of those commodities like wheat flour and beans. And we're hoping that it will come in.

KING: Anthea Webb with the U.N.'s World Food Programme.

Thank you, Ms. Webb, for being with us. We appreciate your time.

WEBB: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK AND TIM SCHAUFERT'S "TIDES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.