Hunger after Afghanistan earthquake: “We even have to turn away widows with children”

Afghanistan is experiencing the next catastrophe. An earthquake in Herat province kills almost 2,500 people. In an interview with, the German head of the World Food Program, Martin Frick, describes the situation and explains to what extent this could trigger a new wave of refugees.

Dr. Martin Frick has been Director of the World Food Program Germany since November 2021.

(Photo: IMAGO/Political-Moments) Mr. Frick, after an earthquake in the province of Herat, the second largest city in Afghanistan, there are said to have been almost 2,500 dead and almost as many injured. They are there as the World Food Program and are helping. What is the situation from your perspective?

Martin Frick: We haven’t really grasped the extent of it yet, but we have to assume it’s a catastrophe. It is another tragedy that has struck Afghanistan on top of all the other tragedies. The earthquake occurred in a remote area that is difficult to access by vehicle. Communication is also poor because the infrastructure for it has been destroyed. We know that the number of victims continues to rise. We have already distributed the first 1.5 tons of food to 700 families. We also stored food in Herat. This means we can feed 15,000 families for two to three months.

That doesn’t sound like an immediate catastrophe.

You’re wrong. What we distribute as emergency aid are high-energy bars. This is the lowest level of keeping people alive somehow. The quakes have left many people homeless and the harsh winter will last longer than two to three months.

How real is the risk of famine?

The threat of famine is extremely real. When winter comes, many villages will be cut off. When it snows we can no longer get into these mountain villages. So if we want to store food for the coming months, it has to happen now. It’s really dramatic. The earthquake comes at a time when Afghanistan is in extreme distress and we as the World Food Program are extremely underfunded.

What does that mean?

Calculated across all WFP operations worldwide, we have the largest funding gap in our 60-year history at 60 percent. The crises are becoming more and more frequent. We have twice as many wars in the world as we did ten years ago. Now, after the Hamas terror, there is the Gaza Strip, where we have to expand our help. We’re just waiting for safe access. Sometimes I have the impression that we walk around the world with a small fire extinguisher and it keeps getting emptier.

What consequences does this have in Afghanistan?

We assume that 15 million people are already suffering from hunger. Last year we fed 23 million people in Afghanistan, which is half of the Afghan population. At the beginning of the year there were only 13 million. Before the earthquake, we had to stop aid to another 10 million people. That means we now only reach three million. That is the absolute minimum. We now have to turn away even people who would be a priority from all humanitarian perspectives. Some even widows with small children. We actually want to provide them when no one else gets anything anymore. Some have to look after five, six or seven children.

How much money are you missing?

We only have 11 percent of the funds we need for the next six months. I’ll give you an example: When we cared for half of the people in Afghanistan last year, the German government gave us 167 million euros for it. We were promised 25 million for this year and the money has not yet been fully received. This week’s earthquake and aftershock hit an extremely vulnerable population that has no reserves at all.

How is Germans’ willingness to donate developing?

The Germans are very reliable donors and the money is very welcome and urgently needed. However, as the World Food Program we are largely dependent on government donors. The federal government is a reliable donor, the second largest in the world after the USA.

Germany, the EU and the United Nations have already announced 14 million euros in emergency aid, and the USA has also announced 12 million dollars. How far can you get with this?

Not very far, because the need is just so great. We have so far received five million euros from the Foreign Office for 2023. To put that into perspective, we need $400 million just to organize winter relief for seven million people. We therefore have to cut the rations and only distribute the absolute minimum to fewer people. But it’s still not enough at the back and front. We are very worried about what will happen when winter sets in and we can no longer access the villages at all. In addition, our sister organization has accommodated a number of earthquake victims in tents who cannot spend the winter in them when the outside temperature is minus 10 degrees. This is completely inappropriate.

Many aid organizations left the country after the Taliban came to power. The regime is hopelessly overwhelmed with help. Are they still getting in your way?

Not that one. They make problematic decisions that often challenge our work, but they generally let us help.

Do you have the necessary infrastructure to organize help?

Absolutely, our aid reached half of the Afghan population last year. There are enough grains and other foods on the world market. We just don’t have enough money to purchase them and keep our operation running. The gap between what we need and what we have continues to widen. We’ve cut so much that our backs are against the wall. And food is 30 percent more expensive than in 2019.

When many refugees from Syria and other countries came to Germany in 2015 and 2016, one reason was that the World Food Program did not have enough money to care for them in the camps in Lebanon and elsewhere. Is there now a threat of a new wave of refugees from Afghanistan?

Of course, misery increases migration pressure. On the other hand, we care for people who are not mobile at all. The widow with the small children will not set off. Those who are young and strong have probably already left.

Because they saw no prospects for the country even without an earthquake?

Yes. Afghanistan is a country that is spared nothing. After decades of war it is devastated. But it is also one of the countries most affected by climate change. Agricultural production is hardly possible. The de facto government cannot find solutions. The people there experience all the terrible things that can happen. Now also the earthquake.

Volker Petersen spoke to Martin Frick

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