The United Nations is warning of an imminent humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, saying pre-famine conditions are already gripping much of the country.
U.N. officials say Afghans are fleeing their homes and heading for the Pakistan border, and they say there has been an increase in numbers of people crossing the border, even though it has been officially closed by Pakistani authorities. U.N. officials say they believe about 15,000 people have managed to enter Pakistan in the past few days, with most crossing at border areas in the southern Pakistan province of Baluchistan.
U.N. agencies have evacuated their foreign staff from Afghanistan but say local staff who remain in the country are working around-the-clock to try and keep assistance programs running. Before the current crisis, such programs fed an estimated five million people a day. Stephanie Bunker a spokeswoman for the U.N. office coordinating humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, says those assistance programs are now falling short.
"The reality is that the humanitarian assistance program in Afghanistan is at dangerously low ebb," says Ms. Bunker. "Millions of people will face serious shortages of food, serious shortages of water and, of other supplies, within Afghanistan if we cannot deliver enough relief assistance."
U.N. officials say all food shipments to Afghanistan have been suspended. They say they currently have enough food stocks inside the country to last two to three weeks. They say they are developing a program to feed more than one million people who may leave for Pakistan, Iran, or Tajikistan as the crisis deepens.
According to U.N. officials, pre-famine conditions now exist in many parts of rural of Afghanistan. Khaled Mansour, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program says the situation is not yet critical, but it is deteriorating rapidly. "By pre-famine conditions we do not mean walking skeletons yet in Afghanistan, thank God," he says. "But we do have people eating famine food, people who are eating grass, people who are eating animal fodder, people who are eating some of the grass in the central highlands which can lead to paralysis. We have people who have sold everything they have. We have a country which this year harvested only half of what they need for their annual consumption."
This latest crisis could not have come at a worse time for Afghanistan, which has suffered from a severe drought for the past three years. U.N. officials say conditions will get even worse if current predictions for an early winter come true, which could disrupt the winter planting season causing further misery for millions of Afghans.