World

Pakistan floods curb food aid to Afghanistan

Pakistan's devastating floods have interrupted delivery of food aid to neighboring Afghanistan that would have fed about a million people this winter, the U.N. World Food Program said Monday.

Many people in rural areas of impoverished, war-ravaged Afghanistan risk starvation, and the poorest subsist on bread and tea through the long, harsh winter. The World Food Program normally tries to move its aid there in autumn, before winter weather blocks mountain roads for months.

The agency had planned to supply about 3.8 million people with food in November. But about 16,000 metric tons of Afghan-bound wheat were in warehouses in neighboring Pakistan awaiting customs clearance when the country was engulfed in floods, said Challiss McDonough, a spokeswoman for the organization. The warehouses were swamped by water about 10 feet deep.

Another 6,000 metric tons was diverted to feed Pakistanis who have no food because of the flooding, she said.

"That means 22,000 metric tons of wheat that we were counting on having in Afghanistan right now simply isn't here," McDonough said. "We have enough for this month, but will start running short in November, and the situation will be really critical in December."

Winter snows start cutting off roads in much of mountainous Afghanistan in late October or early November. The World Food Program typically sends a full winter's worth of food out to those areas that get blocked by snow about this time of year.

"If we cannot get food into those areas before the roads close, we won't be able to reach those people until spring, or in some places early summer," McDonough said. "So a shortage now can continue affecting people for months."

While food can be helicoptered in, it is so expensive that the agency reserves that only for the most dire cases, McDonough said.

The wheat lost to Pakistan's floods was insured but takes time to replace. Purchases typically take about three to four months to arrange, McDonough said. The agency is trying to buy some of Afghanistan's wheat crop, it will be difficult to get even that in time, she said. They have put out bids for about 10,000 metric tons of Afghan wheat.

The agency plans to prioritize the wheat that it does have to make sure it goes to the neediest people — victims of natural disasters or people left homeless by conflict, she said.

The first programs to get cut will be those that give food as payment to day laborers. The idea behind the programs is that they target the poorest people in a community by default, as they are the ones most willing to work for food alone. Also likely to be cut will be programs that give food to families in exchange for the man of the household letting his wife take classes in literacy or marketable skills like tailoring or beekeeping.

Some supplies survived the flood — vegetable oil for example was salvaged even after being submerged in water. The agency said recent blockades of military supplies from Pakistan have not kept it from being able to ship these supplies in. Commercial trucks and humanitarian cargo are still being allowed through and McDonough said five WFP trucks crossed the border Sunday, with another 15 expected to cross Monday.

About 80 percent of the agency's food aid for Afghanistan typically passes through Pakistan.