By Charlotte Greenfield
KABUL (Reuters) - A drop in donor funding could push parts of Afghanistan into famine this year, the World Food Programme said on Monday, adding that up to 9 million Afghans could be left without food aid after it had already had to slash rations.
A huge humanitarian aid package after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021 - leading to foreign governments cutting development funding and imposing sanctions - helped avert a widespread famine then, but now those fears are rising again.
"Because of that, we've been able to stave off famine," WFP Afghanistan Country Director Hsiao-Wei Lee told Reuters. "If we are not able to provide that (again), we could face the worst-case scenario."
The WFP is currently short of $93 million for March and April, causing it to reduce rations to 4 million Afghans to 50% of what they need. Another 9 million people will lose access to food aid entirely next month if it does not receive funding commitments in coming weeks.
The WFP comments are one of the first concrete signs after international officials warned that growing global emergencies and challenging economic conditions, combined with Taliban restrictions on women, could lead donors to pull back.
The restrictions have drawn widespread international criticism. The Taliban administration says it respects women's rights in line with their interpretation of Islamic law and are working on guidelines to clarify the rules on female NGO workers.
Lee also described the Taliban authorities' decision to ban most Afghan women from working at NGOs in December as a "devastating blow".
"Against the backdrop of the ban, partners are continuing to review their funding to operations in Afghanistan and there could be a decline in funding," she said.
"It's very much in the back of everybody's minds and we just need to continuously remind ourselves that humanitarian funding ... does need to remain apolitical," she said, adding that many of WFP's beneficiaries were women and children.
She also pointed to the parallel crises that have unfolded in Ukraine and around the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.
Lee said the WFP was monitoring to ensure women were still reaching sites where it distributed cash and food and that authorities had granted exemptions in some areas to allow female NGO workers.
The WFP was turning beyond its traditional major donors, Lee said, to ask countries in the region and private organisations to help it raise the $800 million needed for the next six months.
According to U.N. finance records, the WFP received around $1.7 billion last year for Afghanistan from dozens of governments and institutions. Its major donors included the United States, Britain and Germany. The records did not indicate which donors had reduced funding this year.
(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Kabul; Editing by Alison Williams)