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A Humanitarian Crisis Is Unfolding Across Afghanistan, Food Group Cautions

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Across Afghanistan, families have been forced from their homes due to conflict and now fear over their future. The current chaos could worsen food insecurity in a country already devastated by decades of war, COVID-19 and a crippling drought. Right now, 1 in 3 Afghans is already going hungry. Mary Ellen McGroarty is the country director at the World Food Programme, and she joins us now. Good morning, Mary Ellen.

MARY ELLEN MCGROARTY: Good morning or good evening, rather, from Kabul.

FADEL: You've warned about a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan right now. Can you just break down the current situation there for us?

MCGROARTY: Yeah, I mean, we just see a humanitarian crisis of incredible proportions just unfolding before our eyes. As you said at the top, 2021 was already going to be an extraordinarily difficult year. The country is grappling with its second drought in as little as three years. It's the driest year in 30 years. People also are reeling from the socioeconomic shock of the COVID-19 pandemic. And then we've had conflict raging over the last couple of months that has displaced over 500,000 people, 250,000 of those since the beginning of May. Those people have not moved once. They have moved twice. They have moved three times, fleeing just with the clothes on their back. And many of the areas that have seen intense conflict, they're also the areas of intense drought, so people have the double threat of need. So it's just all coming together in a horrendous tapestry of humanitarian needs, and it will only get worse.

FADEL: So what are the biggest challenges right now to getting food to people in need?

MCGROARTY: What are the biggest - well, we're navigating the new context that we find ourselves dealing with, but that's nothing new for the humanitarian sector and WFP in Afghanistan. We've been navigating here through many, many decades of conflict, and in recent months, we've been able to maintain our operations. It's been challenging with the security and with access. But since May, we've managed to reach 4 million people. But it's not enough. We need to be doing much, much more. We need to scale up. The critical issues now are, you know, getting funding in. We need $200 million today so that we can start procuring food. We can start moving it into the region and moving it into the country and getting it out to the remote areas.

FADEL: Now, you mentioned the decades that the WFP has been operating in Afghanistan - for 60 years now, two decades of that in a U.S.-led war and a Taliban insurgency. As you mentioned, you're operating under a new power structure. The Taliban is in charge of the capital, much of the country. How does this impact the organization's work?

MCGROARTY: We have to - now, I guess, we have to navigate a new context, but we do have structures in place that we've had in place for many years, particularly in the provinces. Many of it's the same protagonists we have been dealing with. They want the humanitarian effort scaled up. They want the humanitarian sector back at work. They realize, I think, the very critical situation that the people of Afghanistan are in at the moment when you take the triple threat of COVID, the conflict and, of course, the drought.

FADEL: So you're in communication with the Taliban in certain areas so that you can get the aid there, I'm assuming.

MCGROARTY: Yes, we're in the - yeah, of course, yeah, with what they call the NGO commission, I mean, their structure that sort of manages - so the different provincial levels with many others in the humanitarian sector - we are in discussions with them for unimpeded humanitarian access to the people in need.

FADEL: So you haven't had major interruption to your ability to do the work you need to do on the ground. It's more about funding.

MCGROARTY: Well, it's also a bit of a lull through the conflict, you know? I mean, like, we had monumental events here twice a week in Kabul and also navigating conflict over the last couple of months. They're not a homogenous group, so they're also - I mean, in different provinces, there are different challenges. What we are finding now as we - the engagement - what would I say? Resume is probably the better word - under the new context is that, you know, they are, you know, anxious to get us back working. They seem to respect so far in most places the operational independence. And we have also managed to negotiate, as well, food across the border, so we successfully got across the border at the weekend. And we're also hoping now we can get more across this week.

FADEL: If I could get a sense of how much of the country you're able to access right now - as you mentioned, there's a bit of a lull because of this conflict and uncertainty.

MCGROARTY: We have been able to get across most of the country. I mean, Kabul has been the particular challenge this week. You know, you saw the tens and thousands of people flooding into Kabul over the last couple of weeks. That's a scene that has played out across the country. These IDPs are on the move maybe for the second, third or fourth time. We were in the process of assisting them when things started to change, so that bit of uncertainty over the last couple of days meant a hiatus in Kabul. But now we're in the process of being able to start up again, and we will be back out again, reaching those people who desperately now need some support.

FADEL: Yeah. Do you have any concerns that your work could or would stop under this new power structure?

MCGROARTY: I would hope and we have to be so far, you know, hopeful that they realize and appreciate the humanitarian imperative. The country is in such a crisis. People are in such a desperate situation - you know, the young children, the young families, the adolescents, the women, the men - that you would hope that it's obvious, you know, that this work must continue and is critical at this time.

FADEL: Mary Ellen McGroarty is the country director at the World Food Programme in Afghanistan, and she's speaking to us about the humanitarian crisis there right now. Thank you so much for your efforts and your commitment to this. And keep safe.

MCGROARTY: Thank you. Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ED CARLSEN AND STEVE GIBBS' "OTTO (STEVE GIBBS REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.