The United Nations on Friday said up to one million Afghans could die of starvation amid the worst drought in 30 years unless international donors react swiftly to appeals for help.
UN World Food Program (WFP) officer Pippa Bradford said between 500,000 and one million people could starve in the worst case scenario facing the country, already devastated by more than 20 years of war.
"In the worst case scenario we will definitely see famine deaths of between 500,000 and one million people if we are not able to intervene," she said.
She said there would also be a "large IDP (internally displaced people) population" in the worst-hit areas, particularly the west and north, above the hundreds of thousands of people who have already fled their barren villages.
She said the crunch time would come in February and March, the months ahead of the May-June harvest season when village stores would be at their lowest.
WFP country director Gerard van Dijk said the UN needed 115,000 tons of food worth about 54 million dollars simply to maintain "life-saving activities" until the end of next year.
"If the WFP does not receive fresh pledges soon it will run out of food by February of next year," he said.
"We could see a widespread famine unless adequate preventive steps are taken.
"We have received some donations and pledges over the last few months but they fell short of our appeals ... our resources are quickly depleting."
Senior UN sources in Afghanistan have complained about "donor fatigue" towards Afghanistan, with key programs such as demining and refugee assistance being cut back or threatened due to a lack of funds.
Afghanistan is ruled by the fundamentalist Taliban Islamic militia. Its ruler, Mulla Mohammad Omar, has said the drought is divine punishment because Afghans have not been praying five times a day.
The Taliban, who emerged from Islamic seminaries in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1994 and now control 90 percent of the country, are still battling resistance forces, especially in the remote northeast.
The WFP officials said the Taliban were working with the UN to provide security and help bring food and water to drought affected people.
But they said problems remained, particularly concerning the UN's employment of Afghan women, and the militia's efforts were "difficult to quantify."
Bradford said deaths due to starvation were being reported by people who had left their villages in the remote central highlands and western Ghor province.
"It would appear that the worst-hit areas where famine deaths are being reported from are the most difficult areas to access," she said.
Hundreds of thousands of people had arrived around the western city of Herat, near Ghor, and in opposition-controlled territory in northeastern Badakshan province after leaving their desolate villages, the UN officials said.
The WFP had distributed 110,000 tons of food to 2.3 million people -- out of a total population estimated at 20 million -- since the start of the year.
More than three million Afghans were "severely affected" and in need of assistance.
"The number of the destitute and needy people will rise further in the coming months," van Dijk said.
Some 5,000 refugees had arrived in neighboring Pakistan this week, fleeing fighting and the drought in the north, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.
It said 28,000 people had crossed into Pakistan's western provinces in the past month and more could be expected as winter set in.
"The UNHCR is concerned that continued fighting and the onset of winter may force more Afghans to flee to Pakistan," it said.
"The fighting and the worst drought in living memory also have displaced thousands inside the country" -- ISLAMABAD (AFP)
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