Food crisis leaves many Afghans desperate

KABUL, Afghanistan – Hungry Afghans looking for their next meal eye bread scraps piled up like heaps of trash at a Kabul market as a vendor weighs out fistfuls of the stale crusts on a scale. A Pashtun woman waits with an empty plastic sack.

She isn’t scavenging — she’s paying for leftovers that in better times were sold for feeding to sheep and cows. The woman said her household of 14 people had to give up fresh bread a month ago as the price spiraled out of reach.

Rising global food prices have hit few places as hard as Afghanistan, where the cost of wheat flour has shot up 75 percent in three months, fueling anger against the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai. In the volatile south, officials fear it could boost recruitment for the Taliban insurgency.

“Karzai is the king and this is my life,” wailed the Pashtun woman, who declined to give her name because of her conservative social code. “Since the Americans came here, nothing is cheap.”

The U.N. World Food Program, or WFP, warns that the situation for the poorest in Afghanistan is dire and deaths from malnutrition are likely to increase. Protests have broken out in at least one city.

Even middle-income professionals are struggling.

“People are not dying of starvation, per se, but that’s very rare these days. Usually people die from diseases they never should have died from but their bodies are weakened by hunger,” he said.

Even before the food crisis, U.N. data showed 54 percent of children under five in Afghanistan are stunted. An estimated 10,400 people die of nutritional deficiencies each year.

In two of the poorest provinces, Ghor and Badghis, communities are buckling under the double impact of the global food crisis and a drought that wiped out 70 percent of last year’s crop, said Mary Kate MacIsaac of the aid group World Vision.

“If they did have assets, they have been forced to sell them off,” she said. “People are desperate and living in greater fear of what’s to come if this year’s crop fails.”

Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but Commerce Minister Amin Farhang estimated that in 2007 Afghanistan produced 1.3 million tons less grain than the 6.6 million tons it requires each year.

Deputy Agriculture Minister Pir Mohammad Azizi said initial signs show the 2008 harvest will be worse because of insufficient rains in the early spring.

Because of its reliance on aid and imports to help fill its food deficit, Afghanistan is particularly vulnerable to rising international prices driven by growing demand from China and India and the use of grain to make bio-fuel.

The main source of Afghan food imports, Pakistan, is suffering its own wheat shortages and has imposed stiff controls on exports to Afghanistan, forcing prices higher.

Traders at Mandawi market, the main center for flour sellers in Kabul, blame ruthless businessmen for capitalizing on the shortages. They look back with some nostalgia on the Soviet-backed communist regime of the 1980s.

“In the past we had shortages but there were silos. The government had several months supply to cope with a food crisis. Now the government can’t even cope for a day,” said flour seller Sayed Hassan Agha, 64. “We are at the mercy of businessmen.”

With elections due next year and its popularity at rock bottom, the food crisis has political and security repercussions for Karzai’s government.

“There are lots of young men who are jobless, they have no income in their families and this economic situation makes them join the Taliban,” said Niaz Mohammad Sarhadi, chief of Zhari district, near the main southern city of Kandahar.

For the first time since the fall of the Islamist regime six years ago, the WFP has begun food distributions in Afghan cities, rather than just to rural areas.

That, and a government plan to use $50 million to buy flour for government employees and the poor, has helped reduce the price of a 110-pound sack of flour imported from Pakistan from $50 to $40 this week, Kabul traders say. Farhang predicted that after the May harvest prices would drop further.

But even if those hopes are realized, the economic realities in post-Taliban Afghanistan will remain harsh, a source of growing bitterness across the social spectrum.

Teachers have been staging strikes at the top high state schools in Kabul, demanding a hike in their $50 monthly salary, while desperate villagers migrate to the city seeking elusive work as laborers that pays $3 a day.

“Look at all these people here,” said Fateh Mohammed, 35, gesturing to a crowd of jobless, hollow-cheeked men in grimy prayer caps, outside a Kabul bakery. “They are here because their children are hungry.”

Associated Press writers Amir Shah in Kabul and Noor Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.

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