HONOLULU, Hawaii — About 2.5 million people face hunger in Afghanistan. This devastating amount is mostly found in areas that are faced with tremendous drought, which leaves people unable to grow crops. Consequentially, the hunger is so extreme in these areas that it is leading to malnutrition and ultimately causing deaths that could have been prevented.
Out of the country’s 34 provinces, 14 of them have been devastated by the recent drought.
These 14 provinces are in the northern region of the country, and do not receive much help from the government or from international aid organizations. Crops are failing and animals are dying, also causing the prices of food to skyrocket. With the winter coming, Afghans are expecting even worse conditions as the snow will cut off remote areas from civilization.
2.5 million hungry Afghans is an alarming figure, especially considering the billions of dollars in aid sent there annually. The assistance does not seem to be going to food production in these desolate areas, but rather to the more crowded provinces in the southern region of the country.
A U.S. Congressional study found that 80% of aid to Afghanistan goes to troubled regions. For instance, areas like Kandahar and Helmand receive the majority of assistance, as they are regions that see the most conflict. This is because many organizations that donate to Afghanistan are focused on providing help for counter-insurgency.
While this is crucial for the goal of stability in Afghanistan, those in the forgotten northern area are suffering and even dying from hunger.
With policies from other countries and organizations like Oxfam targeting political and military goals, Afghans’ basic needs are being neglected. The aid that is received for humanitarian purposes is going more towards infrastructure, such as the building of schools in areas that are not easily accessible to kids that need them, or where there are not enough teachers to run the school.
The allocation of money needs prioritizing, and those in poverty and facing hunger are not being helped, thus leading to issues such as malnutrition.
Malnutrition is a growing problem that is especially prevalent in children in Afghanistan. While adults are suffering from hunger, the rate of malnutrition is not as high for adults as it is for children. The reason for this is still being investigated, however, possible reasons include the scarcity of breastfeeding in infants, therefore leading to dependence on milk powders that do not supply newborns with sufficient vitamins and nutrients.
The two diseases that Afghan children are primarily faced with due to malnutrition and insufficient amounts of protein are kwashiorkor and marasmus. These are not commonly heard of since in other areas of the world, they are prevented with sustainable amounts of food.
Kwashiorkor is a condition that results from a protein deficiency, which causes distended stomach and swollen feet. Marasmus is another type of disease related to severe malnutrition, which causes the skin gets destroyed and starts to loosen. Month-old babies are coming into the hospital suffering from these horrific diseases.
Another matter children are facing from hunger is deficiency in iodine. Iodine is crucial for brain development, making it a necessary asset to the growth of a child. According to Unicef, “iodine deficiency is the most prevalent cause of brain damage worldwide. It is easily preventable, and through ongoing targeted interventions, can be eliminated.”
In 2009 it was uncovered that roughly 70% of Afghan children are deficient of iodine.
The UN has also reported that about 55% of children in Afghanistan are not able to grow and biologically develop properly due to malnutrition. Namely, these kids are not getting enough food within the first two years of their lives, thus causing chronic illness.
About one in ten children are dying by the age of five.
One of the reasons malnutrition has not been addressed on a more urgent level is that in order for malnutrition to be defined as an emergency situation, 10% of children under the age of five would need to be considered severely malnourished. Unicef and the Afghan Ministry of Public Health have set this bar, and the actual statistic in Afghanistan is just shy of that. Currently, the rate of malnutrition is at 7%.
This number still seems high enough where it should be a pressing issue, but yet it is still not enough to create urgency. This causes less money to be designated towards food production, and does not help the lack of nutrient-rich foods available to children.
Malnutrition rates are on the rise, increasing by about 50% since 2012, according to the UN. Helmand Province’s Bost Hospital, located in Afghanistan, admits about 200 new children per month due to malnutrition. This number has increased fourfold since 2012. An increasing number of children being admitted to hospitals for malnutrition raises a couple of sentiments: on one hand, it appears as though more children are suffering from hunger, which means an increase in diseases caused by malnourishment.
On the other hand, it is positive that more children are being brought in to hospitals for care, since this has not been a realistic option for many poor families in the past. More Afghans are learning about the possible treatments for their children and are able to seek help, which is a step in the right direction.
Hunger and malnutrition are issues that are intertwined, and both sprout from the same epidemic: poverty. According to the Health Ministry, 36% of Afghans are below the poverty line, meaning their income is not enough to obtain 2,100 calories a day for each family member.
The Chief of Nutrition at Unicef, Werner Schultink, has said as of Jan. 10, 2014 that more studies and new statistics will be drawn up soon in order to help the reassess the situation in Afghanistan. Hopefully with more telling statistics, international aid organizations and donors will allocate more money to the regions that are suffering severely from hunger and malnutrition.
– Danielle Warren