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Sunday, 7 October, 2001, 11:23 GMT 12:23 UK
Afghan aid: The supply problems
Old Afghan women refugees
Millions of Afghans are dependent on food aid
As governments pledge millions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan, former Afghanistan-based aid worker Marcus George assesses the difficulties of delivering it.

In its war against terrorism, the US-led coalition has emphasised the importance of delivering aid for Afghanistan's snowballing humanitarian crisis.

Donor governments have now pledged more than $600m in aid, to fund what is increasingly seen as a crisis of epic proportions.

Local trucks delivering UN aid
Deliveries are difficult because of bad roads
Emergency resources are quickly arriving in Pakistan.

But with borders on Afghanistan sealed, aid agencies are looking at the swelling number of people inside Afghanistan needing help.

After a three-week political impasse with Afghanistan's ruling Taleban, the World Food Programme now says it is trucking almost 800 tonnes of food into Afghanistan every day.

Further WFP convoys have crossed into Afghanistan via Turkmenistan and Pakistan.

Aid hampered by the Taleban

But the Taleban are obstructing operations by banning local staff from using international communication equipment.

The WFP says the Taleban have also blocked 1,650 tonnes of food stocks in Kandahar.

Oxfam operations have also been reduced by more than 50% because of restricted security guarantees.

Many of Afghanistan's roads are expected to be impassable within six weeks, which WFP estimates will cut off 100,000 families from food deliveries.

Its distribution in Hazarajat and Shahr-e-Bozurg has been limited to 120,000 beneficiaries, down from 270,000 before the terror strikes in the US on 11 September.

WFP hopes to deliver 52,000 tonnes of food aid each month and plans to restock warehouses before winter makes aid transportation significantly more difficult.

But targeting what has been described as "hunger belt" zones - mostly in northern regions of Balkh and Faryab and central regions of Bamyan, Wardak and Ghor - already poses problems.

Click here for map of refugee movements

Urban populations moving into rural regions will complicate the logistics of any mass food distribution as starving families travel further to claim relief.

Already non-existent road surfaces in Afghanistan will soften into deep muddy trenches hampering regional transportation plans.

100,000 families cut off

Many of Afghanistan's roads are expected to be impassable within six weeks, which WFP estimates will cut off 100,000 families from food deliveries.

This will not affect Afghanistan's slow and rutted transport arteries. Roads like those from Turkmenistan to Herat, Peshawar to Kabul, Quetta to Kandahar, are likely to be open to aid convoys.

Afghan refugees in tent city
Thousands of families might not receive food aid

But the other end of distribution networks will be narrowed by the effects of winter causing the creation of aid bottlenecks.

At the very least trucks may be substituted by donkeys laden with food sacks along well-trodden paths.

Although this maintains trickles of aid into isolated regions, distribution reach is massively curtailed.

Problematic air drops

Agencies are also looking at organising food drops in regions where security cannot be guaranteed and roads are blocked.

But supplying assistance by air is complicated by Afghanistan's notorious landmine problem - the number of which is estimated at over ten million by the UN.

Whilst areas can be targeted to a rough degree, there is no guarantee of accuracy.

More importantly air security guarantees would be needed from Afghan authorities.

US military officials have suggested that air drops would have to be preceded by air strikes on Taleban positions.

Recovering air relief causes other problems. The logistics of transferring pallets from drop zones to distribution points are time-consuming tests.

Food aid being air dropped
Air drops would be fraught with difficulties

Agencies need permission to operate drop zones to ensure proper targeting, otherwise relief can, literally, fall into the wrong hands.

Most agencies, including the World Food Programme and Oxfam, have pulled their expatriate personnel out of Afghanistan, leaving local staff to continue with distribution projects.

Afghan staff are more vulnerable than expatriates, and will find it difficult to fight against demands from regional and military authorities.

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The BBC's Freya Michie
"The UN is preparing for a major humanitarian aid push"
Panos Moumtzis, UNHCR
"The people of Afghanistan, they have already suffered so much"
See also:

01 Oct 01 | South Asia
Food reaches hungry Kabul
27 Sep 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Afghanistan's future
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