Press conference with UNAMA and FAO

9 Jun 2008

Press conference with UNAMA and FAO

KABUL - Transcript of press conference by Tekeste Ghebray Tekie, Country Representative, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and Dr. Nazifullah Salarzai, UNAMA Spokesperson’s office.

Dari - Pashto

UNAMA: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Nazifullah Salarzai from UNAMA Spokesperson’s Office. Welcome to our weekly press conference this morning. We are very pleased to be joined today by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Country Representative Tekeste Ghebray Tekie, who will give you an update on the agricultural situation in the country. Before I hand over to Mr. Tekie, I have some announcements for you.

We are saddened to learn of the death yesterday of Mr. Abdul Samad Rohani, a BBC journalist working in Helmand province. Afghan journalists risk their lives everyday to highlight the concerns and needs of ordinary Afghan people and it is unforgivable that such selfless individuals are being targeted for no other reason than doing their job. We urge the Afghan authorities to leave no stone unturned in search of those responsible for this callous murder.

Our sincere thoughts and deep condolences go to the family of Mr. Rohani and all his colleagues at the BBC.

The International Conference in support of Afghanistan will take place in Paris this coming Thursday 12 June. The conference is hosted by the Governments of Afghanistan and France with the United Nations. The Secretary-General will be in attendance with President Karzai and the Special Representative Kai Eide.

The conference will be attended by over 80 countries and international organizations and will take stock of the progress realized since the adoption of the Afghanistan Compact in London two years ago and to reassess the strategic challenges that continue to threaten long term success. The conference will also see the launch of the Government’s own strategic development plan – the Afghanistan National Development Strategy.

We will issue the conference declaration to you here in Kabul this coming Thursday.

As part of its food price mitigation programme, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has distributed 20,000 tons of food to 1.1 million people in the urban areas of Kabul, Nangarhar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Zaranj, Kandahar and Lashkar Gah.

WFP’s food-for-work programmes have engaged 500,000 people in nearly all Afghan provinces.

Over the last seven days, WFP provided food assistance to 200 battle-displaced people in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province, with 25 tons of food. As per the verification survey conducted by the Provincial Disaster Management Committee, about 1,300 families have been displaced from Garmser district due to security considerations. 142 tons of food assistance has arrived in Lashkar Gah today and will be distributed to the people in Garmser in two days’ time.

WFP distributed emergency food to 1,300 flood-affected people in Balkh and Samangan provinces following joint UNAMA, WFP and Afghan Government assessments.

During the last week WFP distributed 200 tons of food to 6,000 vulnerable returnees from Pakistan in the eastern Nangarhar province. Further assessments are being undertaken to verify the vulnerable returnee families’ needs for possible food support in the eastern region.

WFP plans to distribute an additional 89,000 tons of mainly wheat and wheat flour to a total of 2.5 million Afghans affected by high food prices by the middle of July. In addition, WFP plans to provide a further 179,000 tons of food to 3.7 million vulnerable Afghans throughout the country by the end of 2008.

On 3 June 2008, a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Afghanistan New Beginnings Programme (ANBP) road mission with four ANBP national staff accompanied by Afghan National Police escorts on its way from Ghazni to Kabul was ambushed by unknown assailants.

The incident took place in Durrani area of Maidan Wardak, on the outskirts of Kabul, when a police vehicle traveling in the opposite direction was hit by a remote-controlled improvised explosive device, resulting in two police officers injured. After the detonation of the explosive device, the anti-government elements opened fire.

The protection provided by the police escorts ensured that ANBP sustained no casualties or vehicle damage in the incident. The UN applauds the Afghan police protection team for their bravery, professionalism and unflinching commitment to duty when their own lives were in danger.

FAO: Thank you and good morning. First I will make some brief points and then I will answer your questions. Food insecurity and soaring food prices are problems that affect not only Afghanistan but the entire world, with nearly 900 million people not having adequate access to food. As you will have seen in the media, this was the topic of a high-level world food summit held last week in Rome, Italy, by FAO.

As you all know, Afghanistan is an agricultural country, but at present it cannot produce enough food to feed its people, who are suffering from the high prices of imported food. Aside from man-made disasters, food security in Afghanistan has traditionally been challenged by natural disasters including drought, flood, frost, pests and diseases.

There has been progress made on tackling these difficult challenges, but the Government and the international community must step up their work together to put in place better measures for dealing with these issues over the coming months.

The Government and donors need to pay more attention and invest more in the agricultural sector, which will be a priority at the Paris Conference on Afghanistan later this week. Investment in agriculture will increase job opportunities, produce the required food and even provide a potential for Afghanistan to export food to other countries.

In 2008, agricultural production in Afghanistan, especially in rain-fed areas, will be significantly lower compared to last year due to lower levels of rainfall in the north, north-east and west of the country. The yield from irrigated areas will also be lower due to lower water levels in the canals.

The response to food insecurity includes short-term emergency and long-term development measures. So far, the Government of Afghanistan and the international community have responded well to emergencies. The Afghan Government was also among the first in the world to recognize the potential impact of the current food crisis. But in terms of long-term measures we all must do more.

FAO, working with the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, has developed an agriculture recovery plan for Afghanistan, including short, medium and long-term measures, to be implemented under the leadership of the Government of Afghanistan. The plan has been presented to donors and will be used during further discussion of the importance of agriculture in Afghanistan at the Paris Conference.

The short-term measures, proposed in the plan over the coming months, until the next planting season in November-December, include:

1. Distributing wheat seed and fertilizer to benefit 3.4 million people;
2. Distributing concentrated animal feed to help 560,000 people;
3. Emergency control of insects and pests on 450,000 hectares of land - which is comparable to around 450,000 football fields;
4. Support to 25 seed growing enterprises and cooperatives around the country, boosting Afghanistan’s agricultural economy.

The mid-term measures, over the next two years, that is 2009-2010, include:

1. Distributing wheat seed and fertilizer to help a further 1.7 million people;
2. Setting up facilities around the country to produce concentrated animal feed within Afghanistan and reduce the country’s reliance on imports.

The long-term measures, over the next five years, 2009-2013, include:

1. Expanding production and use of high-yield seeds, which yield up to four times as much crop as ordinary seeds. For example, an investment of US dollars 65 million in this area would yield a net return of 265 million – this is an over 400 percent return on the investment, and would help over 1.8 million people;
2. Procurement of a strategic grain reserve by the Afghan Government as an emergency response mechanism. With this, it would be possible to assist the 2.5 million most vulnerable Afghans for a period of three months;
3. Increasing the reach of irrigation all over Afghanistan through canal and karez rehabilitation and watershed management;
4. Setting up an integrated pest management system across Afghanistan, including new legislation for the control of chemicals.

To conclude my opening remarks, the message of FAO here in Afghanistan to the donor community and the Government is that investing in irrigation and high yielding seed varieties now is key to enabling Afghanistan to produce all the food that it will require in the future.

It will need time and money to do this, but, working together we can achieve this. It will be an investment that will yield great benefit to all Afghans - not only in terms of food security, but also for the overall Afghan economy.

Thank you.


TOLO TV [translated from Dari]: How do you assess the situation of the Afghan agricultural sector and the rain-fed area affected by the rain shortfall? You mentioned 2.5 million people affected by food insecurity. How do you arrive at that figure and how severe is the situation?

FAO: This year, by and large, the rain-fed areas have failed. There was not enough precipitation to help rain-fed areas. Most of them have failed and as a result there is severe decline in the harvest and severe food shortage. Moreover, due to a decline in snowfall, there has not been much snow melt feeding the rivers, and this has also affected the irrigated areas. These are not as bad as the rain-fed areas, but their yield will also be reduced. The overall forecasts will be reduced from last year. On your second question: 2.5 million people is the figure mentioned earlier by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). These people are the ones who are unable to buy food as a result of the high food prices.

HASHT-E-SUBH [translated from Dari]: You mentioned in your press release about the Paris conference that there are some challenges. These challenges make it difficult to achieve the goals for the Afghanistan National Development Strategy in the long term. How do you expect the international community to recommit to assist Afghanistan during this conference?

UNAMA [translated from Dari]: The commitments the international community has made for Afghanistan have been a basis for significant achievements. We have made progress -- no one can deny that, but also no-one can deny the challenges we are facing. The existence of challenges does not mean that we should not move forward. The Paris Conference aims for a new deal between the Afghan Government and the international community. We expect to see new commitments from the international community, and also the Afghan Government in turn has to commit to more accountability and responsibility in fighting corruption, so that assistance to Afghanistan is channeled more effectively.

REUTERS: There seem to be a lot of conflicting viewpoints about the issue of farmers switching from opium crops to wheat crops. You were quoted in the Guardian recently, saying there was already evidence of people switching form opium to wheat, yet there seem to be a lot of conflicting reports, especially within the UN – I have asked this question to other agencies. Is this just a matter of profit? Can you comment on this please?

FAO: I am glad you raised this point, because it was a complete misquotation. I never said these words and have I fact written to the Guardian to correct the figures. What I have consistently said in many interviews is that, at the time of the planting season last year, poppy and wheat were planted at the same time. But the price increase came from January onwards, and prices kept increasing since. So at the time there was no price incentive for the switch. Whether or not the price of wheat was sufficiently high, the planting had already taken place. But I also believe that in the future, food prices are unlikely to go down significantly, and this could provide an incentive to farmers in the future to plant wheat. In fact, in the Guardian interview I said that I had seen evidence in Bamyan of farmers shifting from potato planting to wheat planting -- not from poppy, because there is no poppy in Bamyan. So, when I visited Bamyan a month ago, I saw some evidence that farmers had found it was more beneficial to grow wheat than potatoes, and therefore shifting to wheat from potatoes.

VOA [translated from Dari]: You spoke in detail about food assistance provided by WFP, but five governors from northern provinces said that that no assistance had been provided in the north -- what is your reaction to this?

UNAMA [translated from Dari]: I particularly mentioned two provinces in the north, namely Balkh and Samangan where 1,300 flood-affected families have been assisted with food. According to the procedures, first there is first a joint assessment led by the Government with the support of the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations to identify the beneficiaries. Then, based on the recommendations from the Government, we allocate food assistance to needy people. For further details on this, I can refer you to our colleagues from WFP, who can give you further information.

AFGHANISTAN TIMES [translated from Dari]: Over the past five to six years there has been a lot of investment in the construction sector rather than the agricultural sector. There has not been enough investment in the agricultural sector and that is why there is a food crisis here. What are the reasons, from your point of view?

FAO: This is a difficult question to answer. The needs of the country are too many: there is a need for hospitals electricity, roads, schools and so on -- and also the need for agriculture. But, unfortunately, not much investment has gone to agriculture so far. But the good news is that, at the moment, because of the food price crisis and the drought, a lot of people are talking about giving priority to agriculture and investing in agriculture. In fact, I am pleased to say that at the upcoming Paris Conference, agriculture will be at the top of the agenda.

ARIANA TV [translated from Pashto]: You said because of the lower rainfall levels there will be a decline in cereal production -- can you give figures on the extent of that decline?

FAO: An assessment has been carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, supported by FAO. This report will be released soon by the Government, but I can tell you that there is a significant decline, especially in the rain-fed areas, and also to some degree in the irrigated areas. So overall there is a big reduction in the yield compared to last year; the percentages and figures will be released soon by the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock.

IRIN: Can you tell us, last year when Afghanistan produced 5 million tons of cereals, how much of that production came from rain-fed areas, and with the failure of these what could be the immediate humanitarian consequences?

FAO: I don't remember the exact breakdown, but in Afghanistan there are 1.5 million hectares of land under irrigation and around the same amount rain-fed, 1.5 million hectares each. The yield from rain-fed land is about 1.1 tons per hectare, while from irrigated land it is more than double that, 2.6 metric tons per hectare. So last year the production was about 4.6 million tons of wheat, of this 60-65 per cent came from irrigated land while 30-35 per cent from rain-fed land. Regarding the humanitarian consequences, there is going to be an appeal for food aid and also investments to solve the humanitarian consequences in the long term. Over the coming days, the UN agencies will launch an appeal to support people who are falling through the safety net, so WFP, FAO and other UN agencies are preparing to launch an appeal to tackle that, and I also know that the Government itself is trying to procure food from outside of the country to bring it in. But this year, soaring food prices are an international problem; many countries are not selling food. It has become very difficult to import food, and therefore -- that is why I stressed in my opening remarks -- the solution is to produce the food here in Afghanistan. We cannot depend every year on food imports, even if we want to support vulnerable people, we should grow the food here.

NOOR TV [translated from Pashto]: If we look at the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, we see that they are being violated, for example by sexual abuse of children. There are some reports by human rights organizations that the real representatives of human rights and civil society are not at the Paris Conference, what is the position of UNAMA on that?

UNAMA [translated from Pashto]: Last week there was a preliminary meeting of civil society representatives in Paris. As I said before, this conference is hosted by the Governments of Afghanistan and France and the United Nations. Over 80 countries and international organizations will participate. We believe that those who need to be part of this conference are going to be in Paris.