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The war in Ukraine is exacerbating food insecurity in Afghanistan

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russia's invasion of Ukraine escalated a food crisis. The war has raised fuel prices, which pushed up the cost of transporting food to some of the poorest parts of the world. On top of that, there's a wheat shortage, and it's all felt in a country that's had enough trouble already - Afghanistan. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Women concealed under blue burqas wait for free bread outside a bakery on a Kabul road. Behind them, a group of men also wait. It's late afternoon. People are desperate. One do-gooder tries to distribute loaves of Afghan flatbread that he's just purchased. And a fight breaks out.

(CROSSTALK)

HADID: "It's mine," a woman shouts. A man, Atik Ahmadi, says, "you've got one already. This one is mine."

ATIK AHMADI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Ahmadi says, "just ask the baker. He was watching." The fight subsides. And Ahmadi tells NPR's Kabul producer Fazelminallah Qazizai that he used to make about $170 a month repairing equipment at the defense ministry.

AHMADI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: That had been enough to feed his five children. But there's been no work since the Taliban seized power, a move that prompted Washington to freeze $7 billion worth of Afghan assets. And that freeze has rippled across Afghanistan's fragile economy. Civil servants haven't been paid. Contractors like Ahmadi lost work. There's no cash to hire laborers for jobs.

SHELLEY THAKRAL: That is obviously contributing to a new class of hungry people.

HADID: Shelley Thakral is a spokesperson for the World Food Programme. She says there's other factors.

THAKRAL: There's been a drought that's also contributing to hunger. There's an economic crisis that's also contributing to hunger.

HADID: And economic crisis partly caused by the pandemic. She says people are desperate.

THAKRAL: More than 80%, they've had to borrow to pay for food, selling their household items just to be able to afford food - know very extreme cases where they've resorted to selling their children into early marriage.

HADID: Graeme Smith, a senior consultant on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group, says even as millions of people were thrown into poverty after the Taliban takeover, the actual price of food in the market went up by 30% to 40%.

GRAEME SMITH: When you put it in sort of real terms, like, a laborer goes out and works in the field, that day's labor buys about one-third less food.

HADID: Now, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has added its own hardship. The two countries produce about a third of the world's exported wheat. While Afghanistan largely imports from the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan, it's seen knock-on effects. Hsiao-Wei Lee is a deputy director of the World Food Programme in Afghanistan.

HSIAO-WEI LEE: There is now fewer sources for everybody to tap into, and so it has been driving up global commodity prices, which means that it is more expensive for us. We've seen that already. For example, we're now tendering for wheat flour from Pakistan that prices are likely to increase.

HADID: Consider that the World Food Programme assists about one-fifth of all Afghans. So less money is less food for millions of hungry people. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also triggered a global shortage in cooking oil, and rising fuel prices mean the cost of transporting all those goods is rising. That's also being reflected in Kabul's bazaars, where the prices are rising again. Trader Abdul Matin Rahimi says wheat went up by another 20% after the invasion.

ABDUL MATIN RAHIMI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: And the bigger calamity might still be on its way. Smith from the Crisis Group again.

SMITH: I think the real struggle for Afghanistan will come next winter.

HADID: When domestic supplies of wheat are exhausted, when current contracts for wheat end and...

SMITH: The whole world is trying to scramble for limited supplies and Afghanistan will be one of the least able to compete.

HADID: And some of the world's most vulnerable customers may be left behind. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.