The World Food Program (WFP) runs a sprawling network of distribution of food throughout Afghanistan. For our desperately food insecure country, where according to conservative estimates more than 7 million people are hungry and with no food, WFP has, for years, been extending all assistance in its disposal to get food and water to these teeming millions. Recently, it announced that it will soon suspend part of its food and supplies distribution operations in Afghanistan due to shortage of funds and less than needed financial assistance from the international community which has adversely affected its resources. The scaling down of operations by the World Food Program will in fact deprive millions of hungry people who are dependent on such charitable organizations for their food.
The goal of food security, which is making food available at affordable prices to all sections of the society throughout the country, has been an elusive goal for Afghanistan even after close to ten years of generous international assistance extended to our country. Extreme poverty is widespread throughout the country. According to the government of Afghanistan's statistics, more than 40% of the population lives below the official poverty line. Another 20% live just above the specified poverty line. With another 20% just barely able to make both ends meet, a total of 80% of the country's population actually live in conditions of poverty and consequently poor health and a ruined future.
The web of poverty, hunger, unemployment, war and conflict in the form of a multi-decade long civil strife are all intimately inter-related to one another forming a vicious cycle that needs to be tamed and brought under control. In addition to other factors that fuel the ongoing war and conflict in the country, poverty, hunger and unemployment are also responsible to a large extent. Many might think that poverty and hunger have nothing to do with the ongoing war in the country because in many other countries with poor and hungry people, there is peace and no war. The fact, however, is that in the context of Afghanistan, the rage of widespread hunger and poverty do indeed play a significant role in fueling the cycle of war and conflict. Therefore, achieving the goal of food security and lifting people out of poverty and hunger will of course help a great deal in bringing about a lasting peace. Let us look at the status of Afghanistan in its production of food and the challenges that lie ahead.
Domestic production and harvesting of food grains has always been the crucial first step towards national food security in every country and geography throughout the world. Afghanistan's main food is wheat. Therefore, harvesting of wheat as the most important food grain for Afghanistan is vital for the overall food security of the country. Over the past three years, the country has faced more difficulty in accessing enough food grains especially wheat to be able to feed its population.
The year 2009 saw the problem worsening on particularly two fronts. One was the widespread drought that reduced the quantities of harvested wheat inside the country. The second was the skyrocketing prices of food in international markets that went hand in hand with the record level of oil at $148 a barrel. The soft cushion that helped Afghanistan overcome the difficulties was the increased import of food and food grains from neighboring countries especially Pakistan. In 2008, the total quantity of harvested wheat inside the country was around 1.5 million tones.
In 2009, the total quantity went up by a significant 120% and rose to 4.2 million tones owing to increased rainfall and end of a period of drought. Use of better types of seeds, introduction of yield-enhancing fertilizers and increased resistance of crops to blights and diseases plus the assistance provided to farmers by the government and NGOs all contributed to the record level of the so-called bumper harvest that the country saw in 2009. In 2010, the total harvest of wheat, although good compared to historical rates, fell short of the bumper harvest of 2009. The total harvest stood at around 3.4 millions but still some 20% above the historical average.
Overall, the goal of achieving food security for every province and region of the country remains to be a huge challenge in spite of these good levels of harvest in recent years. Our country remains very vulnerable to the changes and shifts in international food prices which usually lead to prices becoming too expensive. For example, last year Pakistan and Russia banned wheat exports and this led to an increase in the prices of wheat and flour in the markets throughout Afghanistan. Pakistan at the time was grappling with the fallout from a devastating flood and Russia had its own share of climate change-induced wild fires. The unprecedented increase in food prices in international markets has also negatively affected the prices of wheat and other food items in the country.
Environmental degradation is also a severe problem. War, uncontrolled grazing, illegal logging and the loss of forest and grass cover have worsened drought conditions and reduced agricultural productivity. Afghanistan is very vulnerable to climate change. Over the long-run, changes in rainfall patterns and weather conditions during the year will cause wild variations in the quantity of food grains produced inside the country. The danger from climate change is real and grave as many other countries are already working hard to mitigate these dangers and cope with the resulting changes. In Afghanistan too, securing food for every province and region and reducing poverty and hunger requires that the government and the international community actively work to mitigate the dangers from climate change.
As said, conflict and poverty feed one another in a vicious cycle coming out of which has been impossible for the country. Ensuring food security for every province and region is a long step towards making a contribution to bringing an end to the long years of war and destruction.