UNAMA SPOKESPERSON, ADRIAN EDWARDS: Ladies and gentlemen, good morning and welcome to our press conference with Special Representative Tom Koenigs and Rick Corsino, Country Director for the World Food Programme in Afghanistan. Tom.
SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE SECRETARY-GENERAL, TOM KOENIGS: As the winter months approach, the next six weeks will be crucial for our humanitarian efforts in those communities who need our help the most. More than four million Afghans across the country need food assistance.
Around 400,000 Afghans are seriously affected by natural disasters such as drought, flooding and other extreme weather every year. Over 100,000 Afghans have been displaced from their homes and their communities around the country.
These people need food, medical supplies and shelter materials. We need to make every effort to reach the most vulnerable people with essential humanitarian aid over the coming weeks before the weather conditions limit our access.
While huge efforts are underway by the Government of Afghanistan, together with UN agencies – the security situation continues to complicate our efforts to reach these people.
Insurgent and criminal gangs have killed 34 humanitarian workers so far this year. 76 aid workers have been abducted; 45 of our humanitarian facilities and 55 humanitarian convoys have been attacked and looted.
At least 78 districts around the country are now rated extremely risky for UN aid workers – making access very difficult. Security now prevents us from travelling along large parts of the southern ring road.
This is a matter of great concern. Reaching these people is not a political issue – it is a humanitarian priority. Those responsible for these attacks and insecurity are pushing the most vulnerable people outside of our reach. Those responsible for these attacks need to know that they are attacking the welfare of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable communities.
We are sending a joint message to those responsible and to those who have influence on those responsible: The attacks on humanitarian aid must stop. They are attacks against Afghans most in need. They are violating the most basic principles of charity. We need and want humanitarian space to reach these communities before the winter sets in.
We have demonstrated that we can make real progress when we are provided with the access we need. Recent polio vaccination drives have reduced the number of new polio cases from 31 in 2006 to nine cases so far this year. Seven of these cases are in insecure regions of the south and east – the least accessible areas. It is vital that our staff are allowed safe passage and access to areas where people need our help the most.
We are better prepared, in terms of resources to handle the humanitarian needs of people this year than compared to last year. But we need all local communities to help provide our staff and the humanitarian convoys safe passage so that they can reach affected Afghan families. We need all parties to recognise that the humanitarian needs of the Afghan people must come first – above fighting and above politics. I will be happy to answer your questions later, but first Rick Corsino of the World Food Programme, will give some more details.
COUNTRY DIRECTOR WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME, RICK CORSINO:
Let me just add a few points to what Mr. Koenigs has said. From the World Food Programme (WFP) perspective, one of our main concerns is the increase in the incidence of attacks that have occurred against our vehicles delivering food in this country.
To give you an example, in all of 2006, we had five incidents against WFP vehicles, and so far, in the first ten months of this year, we have had thirty. In the majority of these incidents, food was taken – it was looted and so far we have lost something close to 1,000 tons of food, equal to about three quarters of a million US dollars.
A lot of these attacks have been on the southern ring road, and what this has done is that it has constrained our abilities to provide food into the Western part of the country. We use that route to reach the provinces of Farah, Herat, Bagdhis and Ghor.
Also, this year we are far better off than we were one year ago, mainly due to the generosity of our donors. We have food available, but our problem is moving food into those locations where it needs to go before the winter sets in. We know from experience in the past years that we have about four, five or perhaps six weeks more before we cannot reach some of the higher elevation locations. I’m talking about Dai Kundi, Ghor and Bagdhis. Time is running out, and we need to do this very quickly.
Not only are these threats against our vehicles delaying our ability to deliver the food, but they are adding a tremendous amount of additional costs. Our transport rates have gone up between 25 and 50 percent over the past twelve months, largely because of threats against vehicles.
So if I may just add to Mr. Koenigs remarks the wish that we are allowed to have unimpeded access, particularly during this very specific time of the year – when we are literally running against the clock.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
TAMADON TV: You said there were nine cases of polio, but the Ministry of Public Health says there were twelve cases. UNICEF is concerned about polio cases. Were the new cases as a result of insecurity or due to another reason?
UN SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE SECRETARY-GENERAL (SRSG): I cannot clarify for you whether it was nine or twelve cases, but these cases are in the least accessible areas and these are the figures I have. There is a link between accessibility and polio cases. Where the campaign doesn’t reach we have cases. Access for humanitarian aid workers, for doctors, for food supplies are clearly directly linked with health and the wellbeing of the people. This support is not distributed according to political priorities – it goes to everybody, whatever side of the conflict they might be on. We want to make it very, very clear that this is an impartial humanitarian effort that has nothing to do with who is on what side.
There are people who ask, does it impress the criminals if we make an appeal like this, and I say that if we have the full support of the population, from the community, they can help to control the criminals. On the other hand, no criminal should hide behind the conflict to seek justification for these attacks. There is no justification. We need access and it is for the benefit of the all population whatever their political affiliation.
XINHUA: Which are the most insecure areas where the UN is having problems bringing aid?
WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME (WFP): From the food perspective, we have an assessment of the country, done periodically, which tells us the areas which are most food insecure. But the needs of course, have a seasonal relationship. At the moment, as we did the previous year and the year before, we are trying to get food into 17 provinces in the higher elevations where we identified food insecurity problems. And among them those place where we are really concerned about are Dai Kundi, Badakhshan, Ghor, Wardak and Badghis.
SRSG: This is referring to areas that are food-insecure [areas where people have inadequate access to food] – not insecurity due to attacks.
GOOD MORNING AFGHANISTAN: What has been the difference between this year and last year, in terms of humanitarian assistance preparations? What actions have you taken? You mentioned that there are 78 districts around the country which are inaccessible – how will you deal with them?
SRSG: Generally disaster preparedness in the country has improved and we have cooperated with the government institutions on this throughout the year – especially the preparedness against floods and droughts. Also, the international agencies have got more support, more donations, so the food to distribute is there. Second question – which are the districts? These are in the south and the south-east mainly and some in the west. Farah is also a difficult province. I have explicitly not said that they are not accessible, but there are difficulties in access to some of these districts. In exceptional cases, it is possible to come to an agreement with the local communities and that is the way we want to go.
WFP: We talk about a food pipeline in food distribution. There is food that is available and is already in Afghanistan and moving towards various provinces. Last year, at this time, that pipeline was nearly empty. This year, because of well-timed donations from donors, we do have enough food positioned to move into those areas that I highlighted as the most food insecure.
TOLO TV: If the security situation continues to be like this, what would happen to those people in need of food in the country?
WFP: In the long-term the cost of delivery will go up. The way we’re funded, we get a fixed amount of money. If we have to spend it on transportation, then we have less to spend on food. A lot of the incidents from which we have suffered have occurred on the southern ring road, beginning in June this year. We have had to suspend deliveries of food along that road intermittently. For example, we have not been able to deliver food between Kandahar and Herat for the past six weeks. So clearly, this means that people who should have received food four to five weeks ago have not received it yet. My fear is that we have a window to reach these communities before the winter approaches. If we miss that window, we will be unable to get in there again until spring.
SRSG: The health situation in the poorest areas of the country is not very good, and if the food situation deteriorates during the winter months, then the health situation also deteriorates as people go hungry.
BBC: You are trying to draw attention to these problems. Could you give a more specific answer on how bad it could be and how many people could be affected if the conditions don’t improve? And how bad have things got if you can’t get food to Wardak which is an hour’s drive from Kabul?
WFP: From a food perspective, circumstances vary in different parts of the country. But, as an example, one of the areas of our particular concern is Ghor province. Need assessments conducted in the province in September indicated that there is a particular shortage of food this year – suggesting that a requirement of 14,000 tonnes of additional food needs to be moved into the province between now and April. Part of that requirement we can bring in from the west. We have some food entering Afghanistan from Iran. We have actually purchased from western Afghanistan this year. We don’t have enough. In order to survive, we still need to bring food from our logistic bases in Pakistan which means we have to transit this through the ring road to reach there. Now about the consequences, if we do not get enough food, we have received reports that there is likelihood of the potential migration of people, if they enter the winter without sufficient food.
SRSG: I cannot tell you about a specific province. But I see that Wardak is still pretty accessible. The access in the last week has improved because of some actions that have been taken that make us optimistic. It is not as dramatic as you described it.
WFP: I didn’t want to mix two things. When I mentioned Wardak, I was mentioning it as one of the provinces that we have a winter window to contend with. When I was talking about security it was about the security of that winter window.
RADIO FARDA: You spoke about preparedness for winter. If we compare it with last year – by what percentage has the aid increased? My second question is for Mr. Koenigs. You have said that the health situation, together with poverty, will further worsen the overall situation. In your view, will it create a humanitarian crisis?
WFP: The food we are trying to move into higher elevations would reach about 350,000 to 400,000 people. That is the number of people affected and we are trying to reach them before the winter.
SRSG: In all indicators of poverty and health, Afghanistan is a very needy country. The overall human development index indicates that Afghanistan is the fifth poorest country in the world. So any accentuation of it either through a food shortage or through heavy winter, or any other added stress could produce a human catastrophe. I don’t want to foresee or foretell you any possible consequences – but the situation is dramatic. I hope that it doesn’t get further dramatised by security concerns that can be prevented if everybody supports the humanitarian work which has to be done.
SALAM WATANDAR: In some of the provinces where PRTs [provincial reconstruction teams], UNAMA or NGOs are based, they are asked by local commanders or the Taliban to pay money before they are allowed to do reconstruction work. What is your view on this? Secondly, if you were faced with this for food delivery would you pay them?
WFP: I mentioned earlier that there had been 35 incidents involving our vehicles, and in most cases, food was taken. In none of those cases was food taken at the place where it was to be distributed. Instead it was taken in places far from its destination. The reason is that communities as recipients find a way to ensure that the food does reach the intended beneficiaries. If they believe that it is not possible, we are alerted in advance. With regard to payments, we are aware that these things go on and it is common. Our policy is not to pay such payments. Whether or not our transporters make any payments I cannot say.
SRSG: I’ll just add one principle. In all humanitarian work, the work is done in favour of people in need and that is the guiding line. We and our workers will always orient actions in the best interests for the needy people.
DPA: We heard you say earlier that the UN is asking the insurgents to let food through. And secondly, we also hear that you are not going to extend your tenure as SRSG – can you tell us why?
SRSG: The answer to the first question is yes. We have explicitly called on all parties in conflict to support humanitarian aid for needy people and let the transport and the distribution pass safely.
In answer to your second question, the answer is again yes. I have asked the Secretary-General to relieve me of my responsibilities by the end of this year. There are two reasons. One – I have been two years away from my family, and the second: I can tell you a short story. Somebody asked me whether Afghanistan is the most beautiful country in the world – and I spontaneously said yes. Because I like Afghanistan very much and I like the Afghans who have been so nice and so hospitable to me. But my second thought is that another country is even more beautiful – which is home.
AFP: You were talking earlier about the amount of food this year given by donors. Would you give us some figures and the tons needed in this country? Compared to previous years, what exactly is the situation regarding nutrition?
WFP: Last year, 2006, WFP distributed 115,000 tons of food. This year we will distribute about 220,000 tons, so it has nearly doubled. In value terms, what we are distributing this year will equate to about US$150 million. While the needs might have been higher this year than last year, I believe that there is a growing recognition among donors of the great need for food in this country. Regarding the nutritional conditions, periodically, every two years, we together with the Central Statistics Office and MRRD [Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development] conduct a countrywide survey of risk. It is a national risk and vulnerability assessment. The previous one was done in 2005, but we just recently, two months ago, completed the newest version of this. And this will inform us and will give us an answer to the question you just asked – what change there has been in terms of general food vulnerability, nutrition and food security.
PAJHWOK: If you are planning to provide 350,000 to 400,000 people with food assistance – I would like to know how much of this assistance has been given to the people without there being any problem.
WFP: The number referred to was people whom we are trying to reach in higher elevations just before winter. It’s not the total number of beneficiaries throughout the country, which would be closer to five million. In terms of access because of physical infrastructure and adequate security, we have had very few problems in the north and north-east of the country, even through the main central parts of the country. Most of the problems we have been speaking of are in the south and the south-east.
IRIN: Recently the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] expressed its concern about a growing human crisis in other parts of the country. Does the UN share these concerns?
SRSG: The ICRC has made an appeal because they see the conflict in the south and south-east impacting on the humanitarian situation. We share this concern, and we think that the humanitarian situation has been aggravated over the last two years by the conflict tremendously. You see that in the form of internally displaced people, and you see it also in the food need. Most Afghans live from agriculture, a quite high number from subsistence agriculture, and if there is displacement and conflict, agriculture suffers. In that respect, we think ICRC is right to call for support in this humanitarian situation, which is difficult, as Rick has said.
AP: You said that security primarily is an issue for you in distributing food to needy people. In this case, what could NATO and ISAF do to ensure this delivery? Do you want them to provide security, or do you want them off your roads?
SRSG: We have made our call very clearly to everybody who hampers free access. These are mainly criminals and insurgents, as we have said. But our call also goes to the Afghan national government, the Afghan national security forces, and the international security forces to secure access to difficult-to-access provinces. And to secure the ring road, which, as we have seen, is not only an economic requirement, but also a humanitarian requirement. So every effort is welcome.
BBC: Almost a month ago, based on a request by traders, President Karzai instructed the Ministry of Interior to provide security on the highways to prevent attacks on convoys. Has the UN asked the same thing of the security institutions? Or have you shared your concerns with President Karzai?
SRSG: We have shared our concerns on this and other security threats regularly with the President and the other authorities responsible for security. The security of the ring road is certainly a major concern for the government. The initiative a month ago was a specific initiative of the business community towards the President. We come from another angle – we say that for our humanitarian transport, we need security on the ring road. We hope that these joint voices will influence the priorities given by the security forces, both national and international.
RAHI NEJAT: How many Afghans have died due to the lack of food this year in Afghanistan?
WFP: I do not believe that we have seen any famine conditions over the last few years. What we are mainly concerned with, as Mr. Koenig’s pointed out, is the people that are already living at risk and are very vulnerable to external shocks such as drought, flood and particularly an early and severe winter that can push them beyond their ability to look after themselves.
VOA: You not only asked the anti-government elements, but also called on the circles who influence these elements. Do these circles mean neighbouring countries of Afghanistan or someone else?
SRSG: I was referring basically to the communities. The experience we have shows that sometimes criminal gangs and insurgents are embedded in certain communities, and the less supportive these communities are, the better such incidents can be prevented, or the better the security organs of the country can operate. Even criminal gangs have an environment which is either permissive or reproaching of them. They have people who can influence them. We call on all to use their influence to prevent such attacks.
Thank you very much.