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UN Readies Emergency Airdrops For Afghanistan - 2001-10-07

The U.N. World Food Program says it is preparing for possible airdrops of food into particularly hard-to-reach places in areas of Afghanistan. But the WFP says a number of conditions must be met before airdrops can begin.

An estimated six million people in Afghanistan are hungry. The World Food Program wants to feed them and is sending hundreds of tons of food on a daily basis into Afghanistan from Pakistan and other neighboring countries. The WFP has only four to six weeks in which to pre-position food inside Afghanistan. That is when winter starts and many roads become impassable.

WFP spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume says about 100,000 families living in the mountainous regions of central Afghanistan are particularly at risk of famine. She says that area is completely cut off by snow during the winter. She says enough food stocks cannot be brought into the region before the onset of winter. Therefore, as a measure of last resort, she says the WFP has decided to airdrop food into the area. "We will try to get as much food as possible inside the country," she said. "An airdrop is the last resort. It is really very expensive. It costs between $700-1,200 a ton to airdrop food."

Ms. Berthiaume says the WFP has to provide about 5,000 tons of food a month throughout winter to keep these people alive. She says the airdrops cannot begin until the WFP gets the go-ahead from the ruling Taleban and other security concerns are resolved. "It is a very risky and dangerous operation," she said. "This is why we need people on the ground and our local staff. We need to be able to communicate with them" she explained, adding "I have been on one of those airdrops and people on the ground are communicating with the pilot in the plane to tell him that everything is fine. There is an airdrop zone that is secure. There is nobody on that place and after that, the plane airdrops the food."

In a conventional airdrop, 50-kilogram sacks of cereal are dropped. Ms. Berthiaume says the WFP is considering an alternative method called snow-drop. Under this method, she says, small packets of high-protein food are dropped from the sky. She says these packages pose no dangers for the people below because they are very light. But, she says, this creates another problem. Because the packages float lightly, they become easily dispersed.