Afghanistan is mired in a humanitarian catastrophe six months after the Taliban resurgence, no matter how the numbers are counted.
With record numbers of people facing hunger and most of the population projected to plunge below the poverty line this year, aid groups are calling for unprecedented amounts of donor funding.
Behind the figures are real-world repercussions: Malnutrition is soaring as food prices climb out of reach and incomes dry up. A shattered health system faces multiple epidemics, incapacitated by frozen international aid money.
Seeing uncertainty at home, many Afghans have been heading for the exits – though how many exactly is unclear. With borders to neighbouring countries like Iran and Pakistan officially open only to visa-holders, most are trying riskier unofficial crossings. And it’s a revolving door: Departure numbers may be in the thousands each day, but so are returns.
At home, repression and severe restrictions – on women and girls in particular – have grown since the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover, rights groups say. “We are witnessing the attempt to steadily erase women and girls from public life,” UN rights watchdogs warned.
The core cause of today’s humanitarian catastrophe is an economic implosion fuelled by the political reaction in Western capitals to the Taliban surge.
Afghanistan is short on cash, with the bulk of its foreign reserves frozen since August (and new anger over US President Joe Biden’s recently announced plan to leave at least half in the United States). Short-term emergency aid is keeping health services afloat, and will be expected to do so for at least the next year.
Here’s a rundown of what the numbers say about Afghanistan’s humanitarian crises, six months after the Taliban takeover:
Food: Prices are rising amid cash shortages
A severe drought was already putting food security in peril regardless of who controlled Kabul. But the economic collapse that followed the Taliban takeover has pushed the country to the edge.
Food prices are soaring. More than half the population, or 22.8 million people, will face crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity – the most ever recorded in Afghanistan, according to recent estimates.
Wheat prices are up to 50 percent higher than just before the Taliban takeover, while work opportunities for daily labourers have dropped by a similar proportion, according to monitoring by the World Food Programme.
Inflation is high. Year-on-year inflation for basic household goods reached 40 percent in January, according to World Bank calculations.
Healthcare: COVID-19 is not the only epidemic
Multiple disease outbreaks are hitting a barely functioning health system simultaneously. These include a worsening measles outbreak, acute watery diarrhoea, dengue fever, and malaria – on top of endemic polio and COVID-19.
The food and hunger crisis bleeds into the health emergency. Aid group Save the Children says the number of severely malnourished children at its clinics has more than doubled since August. Malnutrition and vitamin A deficiencies make measles more likely to be fatal, health experts say.
Afghanistan’s healthcare system is on life support, floated for now by emergency aid and money diverted from the World Bank-managed programme that had powered 30 percent of public spending before the Taliban takeover, including health services.
COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise, but funding and doctor shortages have shut down many treatment facilities. Aid groups say many Afghans who need healthcare don’t have access.
Economy: Job losses have hit women harder
Costs are just one side of the food affordability equation. There are also corresponding drops in earnings and job losses.
Wages have fallen by up to 18 percent in the past year, the World Bank says. And a recent International Labour Organization briefing projects job losses of about 900,000 by mid-year – a 14 percent contraction.
Key employment sectors have been “devastated”. The evaporation of foreign funding has seen the construction sector grind to a halt. The drought and rising production costs in the agricultural sector are adding to the food insecurity. Former government employees suddenly out of work (or unpaid in months, pre-dating the Taliban surge) are seeking other ways of earning money. But a traditional fallback, daily wage labour, is far less available.
There are distinct gender disparities. While employment levels have shrunk across the board, these have disproportionately hit women – a 16 percent contraction last year compared to 6 percent for men, with greater losses projected for 2022, according to the ILO. Women are heavily represented in the agricultural, manufacturing, and public sectors.
Taliban restrictions on women in the workforce will also have a clear impact on household consumption, economists say. These restrictions have been volatile, and differ by sector and location. But preventing women from working could cost the economy $1 billion on top of the losses from freezes on aid and Afghanistan’s foreign reserves, according to a December study by the UN Development Programme. This amounts to about 5 percent of GDP.
Migration: Thousands leave, and thousands return
There’s plenty of uncertainty when it comes to estimating migration after the Taliban surge. Estimates suggest there are large numbers both leaving and being deported home.
Between 4,000 and 5,000 people may be leaving Afghanistan for Iran each day, according to figures published in Iranian state media and cited by aid agencies. But return numbers are also high; the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said in December that Iran deported at least 3,000 people daily.
Cross-border movements have long been cyclical, with return numbers rising and falling with domestic pressures.
A recent New York Times story suggested more than one million Afghans have fled in recent months. But a record 1.2 million people returned (or were deported) from Iran and Pakistan in 2021, according to aid estimates.
Aid workers say the threat of deportation has worsened. Iran has tried to increase punishment for illegal crossings, according to UNHCR, which estimates two thirds of new Afghan arrivals will be deported.
For now, the agency says about 172,000 people newly arrived since January 2021 may need protection in neighbouring Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan – a figure it acknowledges is a vast undercount.
Funding: Short-term aid for long-term problems
With soaring needs come record-shattering aid costs. Combined aid appeals for Afghanistan or its neighbours are north of $8 billion – covering everything from existing emergency needs to keeping essential public services running.
The largest-ever UN-backed country appeal, launched in January, calls for $4.44 billion this year, and another $600 million for Afghans displaced in neighbouring countries.
On top of this is another $3.42 billion created in part to keep healthcare, education, and other services going – essentially a stopgap for the longer-term donor funding frozen or severely restricted since August.
But analysts and aid groups say aid alone is not a solution for a crumbling economy, or a substitute for a coherent policy on dealing with the Taliban while keeping funds flowing to ordinary Afghans.
The more the economy collapses; the greater the humanitarian needs become: “Aid cannot make up for an economy deprived of oxygen,” the head of the International Rescue Committee told US legislators last week.
Edited by Andrew Gully.