Afghanistan’s Hungry Will Pay the Price for Putin’s War

The knock-on effects of Russia’s war on Ukraine are hammering wheat-dependent countries such as Afghanistan.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Women wait in line during a World Food Program food distribution on the outskirts of Kabul.
Women wait in line during a World Food Program food distribution on the outskirts of Kabul.
Women wait in line during a World Food Program food distribution on the outskirts of Kabul on Nov. 6, 2021. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

Russia’s ban on food and fertilizer exports to stabilize supply and prices at home while it wages war on Ukraine is reverberating in its own backyard, pushing Central Asian states into economic crisis and threatening to tip Afghanistan from starvation into famine.

The war in Ukraine has already sent shudders through commodities markets, pushing up prices of cereals, fuel, and fertilizer. Together, Ukraine and Russia account for 30 percent of wheat supply; Russia exports most of the world’s fertilizer. The longer the war lasts, the greater the instability of supply and the higher prices will go in anticipation of shortages.

The impact on vulnerable countries such as Afghanistan, where millions of people are short of food and babies are dying of malnutrition, will be devastating, economists said. Other vulnerable countries, including Yemen, Lebanon, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, can expect serious ramifications at least for the coming year, possibly longer. The war is expected to hit harvests and yields, not only in Ukraine, where grain planting this year could be cut by half, but in countries that have relied on Russian fertilizer to boost their own output, according to Friederike Greb, an economist with the World Food Program (WFP). 

Russia’s ban on food and fertilizer exports to stabilize supply and prices at home while it wages war on Ukraine is reverberating in its own backyard, pushing Central Asian states into economic crisis and threatening to tip Afghanistan from starvation into famine.

The war in Ukraine has already sent shudders through commodities markets, pushing up prices of cereals, fuel, and fertilizer. Together, Ukraine and Russia account for 30 percent of wheat supply; Russia exports most of the world’s fertilizer. The longer the war lasts, the greater the instability of supply and the higher prices will go in anticipation of shortages.

The impact on vulnerable countries such as Afghanistan, where millions of people are short of food and babies are dying of malnutrition, will be devastating, economists said. Other vulnerable countries, including Yemen, Lebanon, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, can expect serious ramifications at least for the coming year, possibly longer. The war is expected to hit harvests and yields, not only in Ukraine, where grain planting this year could be cut by half, but in countries that have relied on Russian fertilizer to boost their own output, according to Friederike Greb, an economist with the World Food Program (WFP). 

WFP is spending $71 million a month more on grain purchases, she said, 44 percent more than the average monthly outlay in 2019, to meet existing needs. As the war fallout worsens, need will rise, and not only will WFP have to stretch stocks to feed more mouths, but hunger will intensify in countries already suffering from a lack of food as there just won’t be enough to go around. Already, WFP has had to reduce food rations to 8 million people.

One of the worst-hit will likely be Afghanistan, reeling after emerging from four decades of war with little in the way of a sustainable economy. Since the Taliban’s takeover last August, what economic activity there was has come to a halt, and U.S. economic sanctions mean that many people do not have cash to buy anything, including food. Desperate people have reportedly sold their organs and their children.

“The situation in Afghanistan can only get worse,” said Qais Mohammadi, an Afghan economist and former assistant professor at a private university in Kabul. “It’s not just one but multiple variables, and the Ukraine war is an additional significant variable on top of unstable currency, unstable banking system, unstable political environment, instability of decision-making, having no rules and regulations, freezing of billions of dollars in financial assets.”

WFP has repeatedly warned that half of Afghanistan’s population is “food insecure,” with nearly 9 million people facing famine-like conditions. Worldwide, that figure is 44 million, Gerb said. The Taliban’s Ministry of Public Health has said more than 13,000 babies have died of malnutrition this year already, though the number is impossible to verify.

“Afghanistan is one huge humanitarian crisis,” Greb said, adding that along with Yemen and Lebanon it was already in a “very dire place” before Russia’s war in Ukraine. WFP operations in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Lebanon “are highly dependent on wheat,” she said. “Our resources don’t take us as far as they used to because we have to pay higher prices in global markets.”

In Afghanistan, where the main staple is bread, wheat imports are essential. Kazakhstan is a major supplier but won’t have so much to sell as Russian curtailments on exports to its own neighbors start to bite. Afghan economists expect that farmers in the eastern provinces will take advantage of higher prices in Pakistan, itself a recipient of WFP aid, to sell their grain over the border, rather than at home.

Nazar Bobitski, a strategic advisor with the Ukrainian Business and Trade Association, said Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea coast has isolated Ukraine from global maritime trade, cutting supplies of cereals and vegetable oils, as well as grain for animal feed production. Almost all of Ukraine’s grain exports are shipped through deep-water ports on the Black Sea, but no bulk shipments have left since the invasion.

“Sea lane trade was critical to ensure that there is stability of supply and price stability for these commodities,” he said. Combined with the export bans, “this leaves significant curtailing of supply, and obviously price rises will follow. It’s mostly less developed countries that will be affected.”

It’s not just Afghanistan. Central Asian countries such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan will suffer from the ban on Russian fertilizer and grain exports, as well as the wilting of the Russian economy under Western sanctions, which will shrink their own remittance incomes from migrant workers. 

Egypt, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen all depend on grain shipments from Black Sea ports, which cannot be easily replaced, as sourcing from elsewhere, such as Canada, Australia, or India, adds to shipping costs and time. Nor do good harvests necessarily mean producing countries can pick up the slack, as port capacities are already tight.

“There’s only so much you can do, especially if transport costs are so high. So in the end it means cutting rations. And now WFP would need almost $20 billion for this year to feed almost 140 million beneficiaries,” Greb said. “That’s a lot of money.”

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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