KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Afghanistan is being hit by multiple crises that are "progressively getting worse," with drought, economic collapse and displacement all pushing the population into catastrophic hunger, a senior international aid official said Thursday.
The onset of winter will only increase the pain for Afghans and drive some closer to disaster, warned Alexander Matheou, Asia-Pacific regional director for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
"Staying warm and putting food on the table is now harder than it was before. And if you fall sick, you are more likely to struggle in trying to access health care," he said in an interview with The Associated Press at the end of a visit to Afghanistan.
"For people who already vulnerable, they will become more vulnerable. For people already in critical condition, it could become deadly," Matheou added.
According to U.N. figures from early November, almost 24 million people in Afghanistan, around 60% percent of the population, suffer from acute hunger. That includes 8.7 million living in near- famine. Increasing numbers of malnourished children have filled hospital wards.
Afghanistan has been suffering from its worst drought in decades since last year, hitting 80% of the country. The drought has reduced crops and wrecked incomes for farming families, driving many to leave their villages. More than 700,000 people were displaced from their homes this year, whether by fighting or drought, adding to the ranks of some 3.5 million displaced from past years of fighting.
After the Taliban took over the country of 38 million people on Aug. 15, the bottom dropped out of the already dilapidated economy.
Sanctions on the Taliban cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in international financing on which the government relied. Billions of dollars in Afghan assets abroad were frozen. Afghanistan's banking system was largely cut off from the world. As a result, the government has largely been unable to pay salaries and jobs across the economy have disappeared.
"Now it's the converging of all those factors that is creating a major humanitarian crisis, which is progressively getting worse," Matheou said.
At Kabul's Ataturk Children's Hospital, the malnutrition ward was filled to capacity with emaciated children.
Lina, who brought her 3-month-old son Osman to the hospital, said she couldn't afford to feed her children. "There's no work. The economy has is wrecked since the Taliban came. Everyone is out of work," she said.
With the cut-off of foreign financing, many health facilities around the country have also closed, making it even more difficult for Afghans to get medical treatment. The U.N. has been drawing up plans to start paying salaries for medical workers - who have not received pay for months - and provide other support.
The IFRC has brought in 3,000 tons of food supplies, enough to feed 210,000 people for two months, and is providing families with blankets, thermal insulation and heaters. The organization also finances some 140 health facilities around the country.
"It is clearly a help, but it is not enough. That sort of activity needs to be scaled up to meet the needs of millions not of thousands," Matheou said.
He said the banking crisis needs to be resolved, and most importantly, sanctions must "have exemptions for humanitarian action" and "not cause harm to vulnerable people."