Three million Afghans face hunger as winter looms

Up to three million people in Afghanistan are facing hunger, malnutrition and disease after a severe drought wiped out their crops and extreme winter weather risks cutting off their access to vital food aid, a group of aid agencies warned on Friday.

Poor rains earlier this year destroyed 80 pe rcent of wheat crops in the country's north, northeast and west, leaving impoverished farming communities with little food to eat, said the nine charities which included Oxfam and Save the Children.

With food prices almost doubling since last year, families are being forced to skip meals, borrow money or migrate. Access to life-saving aid is now in jeopardy as heavy snowfall will, within weeks, block roads and risk avalanches.

"Villagers are telling us that this year the drought has destroyed everything. Their food stocks are already low, and they are worried about how they will get through the coming months," Oxfam's country director Manohar Shenoy said in a statement.

"Time is running out to be able to provide communities with the help they most desperately need before a harsh winter makes many areas inaccessible. Snow is already falling and many mountainous areas are likely to be cut off within weeks."

Afghanistan's harsh winter which lasts from November to March often results in heavy snowfall of up to 13 feet (4 metres) deep, blocking remote mountain passes and leaving hundreds of thousands of villagers isolated for months.

As winter sets in, people are feeling the effects of the drought by cutting down on meals, moving across the border to Pakistan and Iran or taking loans to buy food, driving them into debt. Schools have closed as children are being put to work.

Despite 14 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces -- including Faryab and Badakhshan -- being hit by the drought, an October emergency appeal by the United Nations for $142 million has only so far only been 7 percent funded by international donors.

Aid workers warned that if the international community does not respond and aid supplies are not stockpiled in affected areas in the coming weeks, children are at risk of dying.

"Families are facing being cut off for winter without enough food and clean water," said David Skinner, Save the Children's Afghanistan country director.

"We know children are going hungry, and with malnutrition levels already high in Afghanistan, unless aid efforts are ramped up, children could die because they do not get enough to eat." 

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