Page last updated at 21:39 GMT, Tuesday, 29 April 2008 22:39 UK

Afghans struggle as food prices soar

A severe food crisis in Afghanistan - caused by rising wheat prices - threatens to further destabilise an already deeply troubled country, writes the BBC's Alastair Leithead in Kabul.

Qamair Gul bakes bread
Qamair says prices were not this bad even during the war

Inside a small mud house in the communal garden of a block of flats, Qamair Gul is hunched over a bread oven, her eyes streaming from the thick smoke bellowing out from the scrap-wood fire she uses to cook.

Two women in blue burkas sit inside watching as she kneads the dough and slaps and stretches it into the characteristic shape of Afghan bread before sticking it to the side of the oven to bake.

Qamair is a war widow - there are tens of thousands of women like her in Kabul - who make a few pence cooking bread for the poor.

In the last few weeks her workload has halved as the price of wheat has doubled.

"If it stays as bad as this for another month everyone will turn against the government. Prices weren't this bad even during the war," she says complaining about how difficult things have become since the price hike.

Big protests

Kabul's flour market, where truck loads of imported wheat flour are unloaded and stored in warehouses, is practically deserted in comparison to just a few weeks ago.

An Afghan man carries a bag of food aid from the US
Isolated and landlocked, Afghanistan depends on Pakistan for its wheat

"Normally we would have 100 to 150 lorries full of flour arriving every day," said shopkeeper Mohammad Asif.

"Right now there aren't even five or 10 lorries coming. Look how few people there are at the market."

He described how the price of a 50kg bag of flour had gone from 700 Afghanis ($14) at the start of the year, to 1,250 Afghanis ($26) four weeks ago, and how this week it passed 2,500 Afghanis ($50) for the first time.

A month's supply of wheat for an average Afghan family now costs the same as the total monthly wage of most civil servants.

The price fluctuates wildly throughout the day as rumours circulate about where or when new stocks might be coming in from, or that some Afghan delegation visit to Pakistan might have finally persuaded their neighbours to lift the export ban.

Isolated and landlocked, Afghanistan has come to depend on Pakistan for its wheat. But with the global crisis exports have been stopped - even illegal ones by donkey across the long and porous border.

This has led to big demonstrations in the eastern city of Jalalabad, where the wheat used to enter Afghanistan and which has felt the increase even more than other parts of the country.

UN crisis talks

"Pakistan grows more than it needs, but right now the government has put an export ban on their wheat due to rising prices at home and a shortage of wheat available in the markets of Pakistan," said Tony Banbury, the Asia regional director for the UN World Food Programme (WFP).

An Afghan woman sits on a bag with food aid

"Afghanistan has very poorly developed markets, bad roads. It's very expensive to get food to remote parts of the country and people are very poor, so whatever the challenges other countries are facing they are particularly difficult in Afghanistan," he said.

The UN has been holding talks in Pakistan to persuade the government to sell hundreds of thousands of tonnes to the WFP and the Afghan government to help alleviate the crisis, but for the moment the new Pakistani government has its own problems.

Yet the problem is really having an impact in Afghanistan - an already deeply troubled country.

Hundreds of people gathered at a food distribution point north of Kabul city - most of them poor women wearing their burkas and waiting in line to be given a couple of sacks of wheat from three WFP trucks.

Some blamed President Karzai for not doing more to help, others said they had no idea what would happen to them or to their families if the prices did not drop soon.

The humanitarian crisis is just one worry in Afghanistan.

The street protests have already started, and - with the Taleban insurgency still raging across large swathes of the country - it could destabilise an already precarious situation even more.

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