The past two months in Afghanistan have seen a 50% increase in cases of severe acute malnutrition among children. UNICEF warns that unless those children receive urgent aid they are at risk of dying.
Millions of Afghans are struggling to put food on the table due to one of the worst droughts Afghanistan has seen. This situation is further compounded by a collapsing economy and rising poverty.
Over 23 million people – more than half of the population – now face acute food insecurity.
Amongst the most vulnerable and at risk of dying are children and babies, including those in hospitals that now lack the food and the medicines to save them.
UNICEF, the UN’s Children’s Fund is on the ground in Afghanistan. On Tuesday it launched its largest ever single-country appeal for 2 billion US dollars to help avert the imminent collapse of health, nutrition, education and other vital services for Afghanistan’s children and families.
Vatican Radio’s Linda Bordoni spoke to Chief of Communications for UNICEF in Afghanistan, Sam Mort, who illustrated a dramatic and grim reality that is only destined to get worse as winter sets in.
Listen to the interview with UNICEF's Sam Mort
The situation Sam Mort describes is absolutely dire, with millions of families who can no longer afford to feed their children and a broken health care system unable to provide life-saving medicines, nutritious food, or even pay its own staff.
It’s a situation in which mothers are giving birth to premature babies and are unable to breastfeed because they too are malnourished.
Poor families who no longer have access to local or regional doctors and healthcare clinics find themselves scrambling to find money to take their sick children to Kabul to hospital, but it takes them too long and their journeys of hope, in too many cases, end “when the parents arrive at the hospital, only for their child to die.”
“If they had been able to access health care earlier on, that child would still be alive,” she says.
The reasons for the dramatic humanitarian situation affecting the population, Mort explains, are many: the drought, the poor harvest, the high food prices, the mass unemployment and near collapse of the banking sector and the economy.
“Almost half the country, around 23 million people are food insecure,” she says, pointing out that dry statistics are transformed into sad reality when traveling around the country.
During a visit to the provincial hospital in Bamyan in central Afghanistan she says she discovered that in the last few months, it has witnessed a 30% increase in severe acute malnutrition, a 50% decrease in routine immunization, and a 30% increase in premature birth caused by the mother’s malnourishment and stress "right up to the point they were giving birth when they should be resting."
The mothers, Mort says, all had something in common: “their husbands had lost their jobs since August.” They were jobs in the government, in the army, in construction, in agriculture… The fathers had lost their jobs and families did not have enough to eat and were becoming malnourished.
She also speaks of the upsetting experience of going into a pediatric ward for children with complicated severe malnutrition, explaining that “one of the most haunting things" she experienced is the silence.
“Normally, when you go into a children’s hospital, there is crying, shrieking, giggling, gurgling… because there are babies and toddlers, and you expect them to be curious about what is going on. In this ward the babies were just lying in their cribs; they wouldn't follow my gaze, they wouldn’t grab my finger, they just put all their energy into breathing,” she says.
“It's a very stark reminder of the seriousness of this condition all over the country.”
Mort, who has traveled extensively throughout the country says this situation is dramatically true everywhere and is particularly worrying as this is only the start of three to four months of brutally cold winter weather that will inevitably bring more hardship and pain.
“That is why UNICEF has been sounding the alarm for many months now, asking the international community to focus on humanitarian aid for Afghanistan, and not to play political brinkmanship with people's lives, because people are suffering, children are in pain, and people are dying,” she says.
One of the reasons for the hardship suffered by the people is the withdrawal of international donors due to the current political situation.
UNICEF, Mort says, understands that the international community and financial institutions “don't want to channel funds through the de facto authorities.” Thus, she continues, it is not asking anybody to do that, but she recalls that “Afghanistan was one of the most aid-dependent countries long before August – UNICEF has been in Afghanistan for 70 years – it’s a country that has witnessed conflict or crisis for over four decades.”
What UNICEF is appealing for, she adds, is for governments and financial institutions to finance UNICEF and the UN and international NGOs directly: “There is a precedent for this, we have done it in Yemen, we are equipped. We have the systems in place and we have the experience to receive that money directly without it going through the de facto authorities. We have the networks and the programmes in place to get that money, to get medical supplies and education materials to those who need them the most.”
The difficulties are daunting but every drop makes a difference. Mort says “it would be wonderful if people could do what they can and give to UNICEF.org.
“Today we launched our biggest ever Humanitarian Action for Children Appeal,” she concludes, noting that for Afghanistan alone, that appeal is for 2 billion US dollars because it aims to go beyond saving children's lives, to try to support whole systems across the country.
“ We would very much like, especially at this time of year when we are encouraged to think of others, if people could show solidarity with the people of Afghanistan.”