The UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) may have to abandon its operations in Afghanistan due to a shortfall of US$2.5 million.
"We have an annual budget of $19.5 million of which $15.5 million mainly comes from passenger fares. There is a projected shortfall of $4 million," said Loic Lataste, the UN World Food Programme's (WFP) air transport officer in Kabul, adding that the UN Central Emergency Relief Fund had contributed $1.35 million to UNHAS to fill the gap in 2008.
UNHAS is managed by WFP and is the only air service in Afghanistan whose domestic flights are approved by the UN Safety and Security Department and are considered compliant with international flight standards. The service is widely used by UN employees, foreign diplomats and NGOs to travel around the country, as well as to Dubai and Islamabad in Pakistan.
After two meetings with donors, in December 2007 and March 2008, the operation's repeated requests for $2.5 million funding have not received any positive response.
"It's a small budget compared to what's spent on humanitarian and development activities in this country," Lastaste said. "We'll be forced to stop our operation in the coming months if we don't receive additional funds."
Fuel prices have gone up by about 100 percent in the past 12 months, making flights very expensive, according to Lataste.
"It's also difficult to find operators who can meet UN flight safety standards and are willing to fly in Afghanistan, mostly due to insecurity," he added.
Intensifying conflict-related violence and deteriorating security in different parts of Afghanistan have increasingly impeded humanitarian and development access. Increased insurgency and criminal attacks have, meanwhile, restricted missions by road to almost half the landlocked country for most aid workers, including UN agencies.
UN employees are only allowed to travel to provincial capitals in the south, west, central and southeast by air and UNHAS is the only security-cleared airline with flights between Kabul and Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat, Kuduz, Mazar, Faizabad and Bamiyan.
"The reasons for maintaining UNHAS services in Afghanistan have not changed," Lataste said, adding that domestic airlines were not in compliance with secure flight standards, insecurity was a major concern and roads were poor.
UNHAS says it served 42,000 passengers, mostly UN and NGO staff, and carried 1,100 tonnes of humanitarian cargo in 2007.
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