Relief groups race the clock, first Afghan snow falls


Relief groups are racing the clock to get urgently needed aid to millions of destitute Afghans with the start of the harsh winter barely days away.

The UN World Food Program, which is spearheading the drive to get food in, is under no illusions that it will get harder and harder as the days wear on.

"The clock is ticking but it doesn't stop ticking on November 15th," said spokeswoman Ms Heather Hill, referring to the traditional start of the Afghan winter when temperatures plunge far below freezing.

"All we can do is focus on pumping in as much as we can."

The first snowfalls of the season have already been reported in the Paghman Hills north of the Afghan capital Kabul which residents said indicated an early start to the bitter winter period.

According to aid workers, more than six million Afghans will be depending on international aid as the weather deteriorates.

Living standards in Afghanistan are already among the worst in the world and even before the US bombing campaign food was scarce after three years of drought. Life expectancy is just 43 years.

Hundreds of thousands have managed to flee to Pakistan and other neighbouring countries since the United States unleashed its military might on October 7th. Many more are languishing in primitive conditions at makeshift staging posts near border crossings.

UNICEF has warned that "as many as 100,000 more children will die in Afghanistan this winter unless food reaches them in sufficient quantities in the next six weeks".

The countries neighboring landlocked Afghanistan refuse to open their borders except to the most needy. They show no sign of relaxing their hardline stances despite the looming humanitarian crisis, fearing an influx of millions of refugees which they say they cannot cope with.

Ms Hill said the WFP was considering air drops as one way of reaching Afghans far from urban areas, but there is no guarantees the Taliban will allow this to happen.

The WFP and other non-government organisations (NGOs) need the ruling Islamic militia to guarantee security for the planes and aid workers on the ground.

Six international aid agencies on October 17th called for a one-month pause in the US bombardment to allow food supplies to be delivered before the snows fell. But Washington ignored the appeal.