In the north, Afghans fight hunger, not the Taliban

SANG-I-KHEL, Afghanistan Tue Feb 24, 2009 9:03am EST

An Afghan worker unloads a sack of flour at a market in Kabul September 21,2008. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

An Afghan worker unloads a sack of flour at a market in Kabul September 21,2008.

Credit: Reuters/Omar Sobhani

SANG-I-KHEL, Afghanistan (Reuters) - The United States' decision to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan will mean little to the people of northern Sang-i-Khel village whose fight is not against Taliban insurgents but against hunger.

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered 17,000 additional U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan to tackle an intensifying insurgency across the south and east of the country.

Yet in the relatively peaceful north, Afghans face a different struggle. Severe drought and soaring food prices have left hundreds of thousands of people facing a daily battle to survive the winter.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says some 280,000 Afghans in the north of the country are suffering from the drought, the worst in a decade, and are unable to meet their basic food needs.

Although not normally part of its mandate, the ICRC has distributed food with the Afghan Red Crescent to some of the worst affected areas, reflecting not only the scale of the crisis but also the lack of aid in this part of the country.

"The ICRC got involved because the need was so great. This is affecting thousands and thousands of people," said Azim Noorani, an ICRC delegate in northern Afghanistan.

THE "RICH" GET RICHER

While Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, dependent on billions of dollars in foreign aid every year, poverty varies by region. Some areas are much better off than others.

Southern Helmand province, where more than two-thirds of the country's illicit opium is produced and where the insurgency is strongest, is among the top three richest provinces by most indicators, according to a 2008 report by the United Nations.

Helmand has the highest rate of car ownership in the entire country.

Yet southern provinces such as Helmand get most of the aid despite their relative affluence and their role as the center of Afghanistan's estimated $3 billion illicit drugs trade industry.

The U.S. international development agency (USAID) is by far the biggest aid donor in Afghanistan and has pumped millions of dollars into Helmand. If Helmand were a country it would be the fifth largest recipient of USAID funding.

Helmand was pledged $403 per person in aid between 2007-2008 compared to $153 in Balkh, aid agencies said. Neighboring Sari-i-Pol and Kunduz provinces fared much worse with $53 and $55 per person.

For the people in Sang-i-Khel and surrounding Chemtal district in Balkh province, hundreds of kilometres north of Helmand, life has remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. Contact with the outside world is rare and help even rarer.

"We haven't had any government assistance. They promised us they were going to give us food but they didn't," said Mohammad Rafi, 25, at an ICRC food distribution site in Sang-i-Khel.

Although the NATO-led military force has a presence in Balkh, international soldiers are rarely seen in Chemtal, said Rafi, and then only to inquire about security.

Rafi, along with hundreds of other Afghans from the surrounding area, came to Sang-i-Khel last week, some traveling for hours on foot, to collect emergency food rations of rice, beans, oil and tea, donated by the ICRC.

VICIOUS CIRCLE

The ICRC is distributing food to some 30,000 people across three northern provinces where last year's harvest failed.

"Life is not good. There was nothing last year. No water. No wheat. If there is no water this year, I will have to leave and go to the city. I will become a migrant," said Habibullah, 45, a farmer in Sang-i-Khel and father of 10.

His face weathered by a lifetime of hardship, Habibullah tells his story while waiting patiently to receive food handouts. Behind him lie fields where the furrows from last year's plowing are still visible as nothing grew there.

Afghans have survived drought and famines for centuries. But without long-term development, millions of Afghans are unlikely to break the cycle of poverty and could be susceptible to militant groups that exploit the discontent of poor Afghanis.

The people of Chemtal are locked in a vicious circle. No water means no harvest which means no seeds for planting the following year. Many have left to find work in the city or have either killed or sold what little livestock they had left.

"If we didn't have this food (handout), I would die," said Chari, 35, making a cutting gesture across his neck with his finger.

(Editing by Megan Goldin)