With their nation's infrastructure and local environment severely damaged by three decades of continuous war, most of the children now living in Afghanistan have never known a time without hunger.
Afghanistan's centuries-old kariz irrigation system, borrowed from the ancient Persians, once made arid parts of the country fertile, but thirty years of tanks and bombs have destroyed hundreds of years of agricultural progress in a single generation.
A lack of reliable electricity even in urban areas has caused many Afghan families to turn to wood burning stoves or fire pits to cook their meals and heat their homes. So many of the country's trees have been chopped down by people desperate for wood— which sells at a high price when it can even be had at a market— that erosion has become widespread, and forest habitats that once boasted rich wildlife have been completely destroyed.
This year, plagued by the a terrible drought that may have been the worst in a decade, the wheat farmers of Afghanistan produced 36 percent less grain than they did last year. As U.S. and NATO troops continue to battle the Taliban and other groups, violence in Afghanistan is at its highest level since the U.S. offensive began in 2001. Winter snow and ice has made many mountain roads to rural villages impassable to those aid agencies willing and able to brave the increased violence. And literally millions of ordinary Afghan people, many of them children or pregnant women, are in serious, immediate danger of severe malnutrition or starvation.
I recently interviewed Dr. Brandao Co, UNICEF's chief of nutrition in Afghanistan, about UNICEF's role in mitigating the effects of the ongoing food crisis there.
JAELITHE: What basic services does UNICEF provide to children and pregnant and lactating women in Afghanistan?
DR. CO: Based on the current Country Program cycle between UNICEF and Government of Afghanistan and the priorities needs of children and women in Afghanistan, UNICEF has identified four main programs: Basic Education and Gender Equality; Health and Nutrition; Water, Environmental Sanitation and Hygiene Promotion; and Child Protection.
To implement these programs, Annual Work Plans are prepared bottom-up each year jointly between UNICEF, various line ministries and partners. These AWPs have specific interventions and targeted results.
For example, the Health and Nutrition Program has five projects: child survival and immunization services, including polio eradication; nutrition services; maternal health, including newborn care services; a Healthy School Initiative and HIV/AIDS [prevention].
The aim is to support the Ministry of Public Health to deliver health services to women and children.
JAELITHE: How many women and children does UNICEF serve in Afghanistan?
DR. CO: An average of 5,000 severely, acutely malnourished children under five are served each year through health facilities in 44 Therapeutic Feeding Units in provincial pediatric and some district hospitals. And an estimated 110,000 children under five are benefiting trough Integrated Mother and Child Health and Nutrition (IMCHN) outreach activities in Parwan, Panjshir, Kapisa, Kabul and Bamyan provinces. An estimated 200,000 pregnant and lactating women are targeted to benefit from multiple micronutrient supplementation through maternity health facilities.
JAELITHE: This year's severe drought in Afghanistan seriously damaged food crops across the county. How has the drought affected the people UNICEF has been trying to help? Has your organization been able to handle the increase in need?
DR. CO: An estimated 1,200,000 children under five and 540,000 pregnant and lactating women in 22 provinces that are affected by drought and high risk of food insecurity and food price rising are at risk of malnutrition vulnerability.
In July 2008 UN, Government and NGOs launched a Joint Appeal to mitigate the negative impact of high food prices and drought affected areas. This appeal supports reducing malnutrition in 550,000 women and children under five at serious risk and approximately 300,000 farming families suffering food insecurity [due to] drought and poor harvest.
JAELITHE: How does the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan affect your ability to provide aid to children in need?
DR CO: Ongoing conflict is affecting community access to health services through two ways: health services cannot be provided in conflict areas due insecurity, and people will not have access to the established health facilities outside the conflict areas [due to transporation issues caused by violence].
In spite of repeated rounds of Polio National Immunization Days, the country continues to remain polio endemic, mainly because of deteriorating security and limited access to communities. Increased attacks and threats on schools, especially on girls’ schools, teachers, and students, by anti-government elements are a major problem in promoting girls’ education in southern and eastern parts of the country.
Operating in Afghanistan today requires investment in increasing security mitigation measures, such as armored vehicles, armed escorts, increased reliance on air access to regional and provincial capitals, all of which tremendously increase the cost of program delivery.
JAELITHE: How will the coming winter affect your ability to get aid to people in remote areas?
DR. CO: Road blockage due to heavy snow, and logistic and transportation concerns— mainly air transportation— and a financial resources gap.
In response to these challenges, UNICEF has worked with partners to prepare a winterization plan, and has done pre-positioning of some supplies at regional and provincial levels. This has helped fast and effective delivery to more affected areas.
What can you do to help? Dr. Co recommends concerned Americans use the information available in the U.N. Joint Appeal to inform others about the crisis situation in Afghanistan. If you'd like to donate to a food aid agency, in addition to UNICEF, the UN World Food Programme and Save the Children are working right now to save children in Afghanistan from starvation, and could use your assistance.