To counter growing food insecurity in the country, more than 400,000 Afghans have so far been assisted through a joint UN and government "safety net" programme over the past two months, the World Food Programme (WFP) said.
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Skyrocketing food prices, particularly for wheat flour, and a shortfall in domestic agricultural production have pushed millions of vulnerable Afghans into the "high risk" category of food insecurity, UN and Afghan officials say.
Average wheat prices in Afghanistan have increased by 67 percent over the past 12 months and Afghans who are not involved in agriculture now spend on average 75 percent of their income on food, WFP reported on 11 April.
To meet the growing needs of some 2.5 million vulnerable Afghans affected by soaring food prices, on 24 January the Afghan government and WFP appealed for US$77 million to deliver 88,000 metric tonnes (mt) of food aid.
"More than one third of the planned food aid has already arrived in the country," Rick Corsino, WFP's representative in Afghanistan, told IRIN, adding that relief food had already been distributed in Kabul, Jalalabad and Kandahar, with other urban areas to follow soon.
Photo: Abdullah Shaheen/IRIN
|The Afghan government and aid agencies are keen to prevent hunger-related social unrest in the war-ravaged country|
"In Afghanistan food insecurity is a result of problems associated with both food accessibility and availability," he said.
In addition to providing a "temporary safety net" for 2.5 million food-insecure people, WFP is assisting about five million less vulnerable Afghans through its "routine" programme in 2008, Corsino said.
WFP's beneficiaries include about two million students who receive fortified biscuits, wheat and cooking oil.
With rising prices of staples such as wheat and rice having caused food riots in a number of countries around the world, the government and aid agencies in Afghanistan are keen to prevent any escalation of social unrest in the war-ravaged country.
"Hungry people are often pushed to do things to improve their situation… the government and the UN are aware of the potential for growing dissatisfaction when people cannot afford food, therefore we are sharpening our targeting and trying to make sure that we address this as quickly as possible," WFP's Corsino said.
But higher food prices are also affecting WFP’s own purchasing power and in turn its ability to feed the 73 million people in 78 countries who benefit from its food assistance. According to Corsino, WFP paid $230 per tonne of wheat in 2007; now it pays $360 – a 57 percent increase.
For 2008, the food agency says it needs at least $500 million more than the $2.9 billion already budgeted.
|Rising food prices have pushed millions of Afghans into the "high risk" category of food insecurity, UN and Afghan officials say|
WFP's temporary safety net for 2.5 million Afghans will end in mid 2008, at which point the UN and the Afghan government will assess the need for aid programmes beyond that.
Aid agencies say a good harvest in neighbouring Pakistan – which is a major exporter of food to Afghanistan – may contribute to a decline in food prices.
A good domestic harvest and increase in cereal production, chiefly wheat, will also mitigate the impacts of food prices for many ordinary Afghans, experts say.
However, the continuation of the Pakistani government’s strict ban on exports of food stuffs to Afghanistan would contribute to continued food price inflation.