The typical diet in Afghanistan is bread with a watery soup, some onions, a potato, perhaps a bone and some yogurt or oil. One third of the population is hungry or in danger of starving – humanitarian groups call this being “food insecure.” Another third of the population is on the border of food insecurity.
In the old days, before their country was overrun by foreigners, Afghans could produce enough to eat by subsistence farming – growing enough to feed one’s family. Between the disruptions of armed conflict and an inadequate, unpredictable rainfall, that’s no longer possible. Afghans must earn money to buy food.
So the problem is not simply a lack of food, but the lack of money to purchase whatever food is available. Forty-two percent of Afghans live in poverty. Many survive on less than a dollar a day. Twelve million Afghans earn less than 45 cents a day.
Compare that to what the Taliban offers: $100 a month. Can we really expect Afghans to reject the Taliban when they don’t have enough to eat?
A farmer can earn four times as much from an opium crop as he can growing wheat. That income will buy four times as much food. Economically it makes good sense for Afghan farmers to continue growing opium.
Health requires adequate food, essential nutrients, and clean water
The population of Afghanistan is about 28 million. Here are some statistics on hunger, disease and health.
- Afghanistan has the third highest child mortality rate compared to other countries
- 1.2 million children under age five are at high risk of severe malnutrition
- Over 50 percent of Afghan preschoolers are chronically malnourished
- Twenty percent of children under age five die due to insufficient food or from common diseases
- 35 percent of Afghan households do not have enough food to meet their daily calorie requirements
- 550,000 pregnant or lactating women are at high risk of severe malnutrition
- Twenty-five times as many Afghans die of undernutrition and poverty every year than die from violence
- Only 22 percent of Afghans have access to clean water
- In 2006, over 50 percent of children had diarrhea in the previous month
- Children suffer from deficiencies of vitamin C, iron and iodine
- Iodine and iron deficiencies in children are estimated at 70 percent
- Over 50 percent of children are anemic
- During the drought years of 2002 and 2003, when fruits and vegetables were in short supply, epidemics of scurvy (a vitamin C deficiency) affected up to ten percent of the population
- Over 50 percent of children have stunted growth. Nine and ten year olds look like they are only five or six.
Health is a neglected issue in the Afghanistan war
Afghanistan has been the site of war and instability for over 30 years. The cumulative effect has been devastating.
Winters are harsh, and drought is not uncommon. Pests have reduced crop yields as much as 50 percent in some areas. The population is increasing, which puts even more pressure on the food supply. Food prices are high. Government corruption interferes with relief efforts.
There are organizations that try to help – the UN World Food Program, Oxfam, UNICEF. Nutritionists believe that educating women could significantly reduce malnutrition in children. Samuel Loewenberg, writing in The Lancet, quotes several observers:
There are big gaps in basic awareness of nutrition throughout the population. … Many mothers, for instance, do not eat enough during pregnancy, leading to low-birthweight babies. Others throw away their first milk, the colostrum, believing it to be dirty, when in fact it is rich in nutrients. Psychological trauma from the violence has a prolonged effect as well. Mothers often find that their breast milk has dried up, and do not realise that if the child suckled it would return. “They are psychologically affected.”
The amount of money the US has spent on agricultural development in Afghanistan is less than one percent of what’s been spent on military efforts. Imagine what Afghanistan would be like if we’d spent the same amount of money, but 99 percent went to fighting poverty and hunger.
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