UNICEF Warns that Military Changes In Afghanistan Won't Alter Impact of Winter
Afghan Children Face Tough Odds as Temperatures Drop and Forces Clash
ISLAMABAD / GENEVA / NEW YORK, 14 November 2001 - The United Nations Children's Fund cautioned today that the rapid advance of Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan would most likely not bring a quick end to the crisis facing Afghan children.
With the front lines of the conflict shifting unpredictably each day and with the arrival of winter in some parts of Afghanistan, UNICEF warned that "delivering humanitarian relief to those most in need will continue to be a very serious challenge."
Just one day before appearing at a hearing of the British Parliament on the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and surrounding countries, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy presented a grim assessment of the present situation and the challenges ahead. "It is clear that the situation for millions of Afghans remains very precarious. Although we are making progress in getting vital assistance to the most needy children and women, time is running out, and the fluid military situation is only adding to the difficulties," she said. "Nothing we've seen so far suggests that access will be straightforward, that the environment will be secure, or that survival will be easy to ensure."
As winter closes in for vulnerable communities in Afghanistan's more remote areas, with the first snow having fallen on the higher ground in the Panjshir Valley and elsewhere, many children now face freezing conditions. Last winter, in one camp alone, more than 100 children froze to death when temperatures dropped to minus 26 degrees Centigrade, UNICEF said. The average elevation in Afghanistan's imposing Hindu Kush mountain range, which covers the majority of the country's land area, is 2700 metres (8800 feet). Even in lower-altitude Kabul, night-time temperatures are now below freezing and are forecast to remain so.
Thousands of families living in the open under canvas and plastic sheeting will become vulnerable to diseases such as measles that are more prevalent during winter. Snow may soon start to block mountain passes and impede the delivery of assistance. Even in areas that have not already suffered from food shortages, winter conditions will make local food supplies less reliable.
"For most people, winter is a predictable event for which they can prepare," Bellamy said. "In Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of people will be helplessly exposed to the elements this winter, no matter which authority sits in Kabul. We are moving supplies every day, but we still face a very tough road ahead." She noted that reports of seizures of relief supplies, which have increased in recent days, as well as sketchy communication from within the country suggest that some supplies are not reaching those that need them.
Dr. Eric Laroche, UNICEF Representative for Afghanistan, has repeatedly warned that as many as 100,000 youngsters could perish this winter if aid does not reach them and their families in sufficient quantities. His assessment is based on the best available information regarding child malnutrition and disease in the country. Afghanistan is already one of the worst countries in the world for child survival, with one in four children dying before the age of five. Laroche said his estimates go above and beyond that already tragic child mortality rate.
Despite the fluid situation on the ground that has hampered the delivery of supplies, 18 UNICEF relief flights have airlifted vital cargo into countries neighbouring Afghanistan since the start of the crisis in late September.
Using a variety of border crossings, UNICEF has sent convoys of humanitarian goods into Afghanistan on virtually a daily basis. Over the last six weeks alone, 44 UNICEF convoys have delivered emergency relief into Afghanistan, including medicine and medical supplies for scores of displacement camps and village health centers; over 100,000 items of winter clothing; water purification tablets, hand pumps, and jerry cans; specialized high-protein food for malnourished children; and tens of thousands of blankets, tents and other shelter supplies; and more.
But Bellamy and Laroche emphasized that snow will soon start to block some mountain passes, impeding relief efforts. "Given the security situation and the changing weather, we are heading into a difficult season for humanitarian relief operations," Bellamy warned.
For further information, please contact:
Alfred Ironside, UNICEF Media Section, New York
Wivina Belmonte, UNICEF Media Section, Geneva
Gordon Weiss, UNICEF Media, Islamabad
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