Many Afghans were struggling to feed their families amid severe drought well before Taliban militants seized power last month and millions may now face starvation with the country isolated and the economy unravelling, aid agencies say.
"In the current context there are no national safety nets...Since the 15th of August (when the Taliban took over), we have seen the crisis accelerate and magnify with the imminent economic collapse that is coming this country's way," Mary-Ellen McGroarty, World Food Programme country director in Afghanistan, told Reuters by videolink from Kabul.
In an August video provided by the WFP, Afghan women wearing head to toe-covering burqas and men in turbans line up for supplies at a U.N. food distribution centre in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. A bearded man leaves carrying a sack of 46 kilos (101.4 pounds) of fortified wheat flour on his back.
"There are no crops, no rain, no water and people are living in misery. This is a great mercy from God and it really helps poor and needy people," Delawar, who lives in Balkh province whose capital is Mazar, says in the video after getting rations for his family of eight.
Food prices have spiked since the second drought in four years ruined some 40 percent of the wheat crop, according to the WFP.
Millions of Afghans could soon face starvation due to the combination of conflict, drought and COVID-19, it has said. It has urgently appealed for $200 million, warning that WFP supplies will run out by October as winter sets in.
"The situation that we have unfolding at the moment is absolutely horrendous and could morph into just a humanitarian catastrophe," said McGroarty.
"The Taliban depend on the U.N. and they know it - they can't feed the population," said another U.N. official who has worked in Afghanistan but declined to be identified.
Moreover, civil servants' salaries are not being paid, the currency has depreciated, and banks have limited weekly withdrawals to $200 since the Taliban takeover, McGroarty said.
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WFP has maintained operations throughout Afghanistan and has been able to import food from Uzbekistan and Pakistan, reaching 200,000 people with supplies in the past two weeks, she said, and hopes to restore an air bridge to Kabul airport.
'Pallor and Pain'
McGroarty, an Irish aid veteran, has met some of the 550,000 Afghans uprooted by fighting and drought this year, now living in makeshift tents. In June, she visited food centres in Mazar that distribute wheat flour, oil, lentils and salt.
"I just see the grey and the pallor and the pain in their faces as now they have to put their hands out for something to be able to feed their children," she said.
McGroarty, recalling Afghanistan's 2017-2018 drought, said: "People are again faced with no food in the larder, no food to put on the table, having to sell the little bit of assets or livestock that they have to try to survive."
A lack of both snow and rainfall has left "fields of dust" in drought-hit Mazar and Herat to the west, she said, adding: "So it's just a tapestry of one crisis on top of the other."
Malnutrition already affects one in two children under the age of five in Afghanistan, where 14 million people or one-third of the population faces "acute food insecurity", the WFP says.
Its latest assessment says that 15 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces showed less food consumption in the last month, the worst-hit being Ghazni, Khost, and Paktika in the east.
"While a refugee outflow is not an immediate likelihood, food shortages, further insecurity and economic downturn could hasten such a scenario in Afghanistan," it said.
Christine Cipolla, the International Committee of the Red Cross's regional director for Asia and the Pacific, said that fighting, drought and damage to essential services had triggered internal displacement.
Critical infrastructure in Kunduz, Kandahar, and Lashkar Gah has been destroyed, she told Reuters. "We have seen attacks on medical facilities, civilian homes, electricity supply, water supply systems - and all that will need to be repaired."