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Afghanistan Humanitarian Needs Overview 2021 (December 2020)

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Context, crisis, impacts and needs

Forty years of war, recurrent natural disasters, increasing poverty and COVID-19 are devastating the people of Afghanistan. Conflict continues to drive extreme physical and psychological harm, and is forcibly displacing hundreds of thousands of people every year. Civilian casualties remain staggeringly high, with no sign of a lull in fighting and women and children continue to be disproportionately impacted. The onset of COVID-19 has had catastrophic consequences for people’s health, incomes and levels of debt. Hunger and malnutrition have spiked amid the ongoing conflict and economic downturn, with food insecurity now on par with the 2018-2019 drought, leaving Afghanistan with the second highest number of people in emergency food insecurity in the world – 5.5 million people.

Evolution of needs 2020-2021

The political, social, economic, and security landscape in Afghanistan has shifted dramatically since the start of 2020. The US-Taliban agreement in early 2020 signalled a historic shift in US policy towards Afghanistan and opened the way for a severe drawdown in the international military presence and active US engagement in the ongoing conflict, in exchange for a number of commitments from the Taliban, including participation in talks with the Government of Afghanistan. The temporary ceasefire negotiated as part of that agreement created a model for two subsequent, temporary ceasefires between the Taliban and Afghan Forces, and contributed to the conditions under which historic Intra-Afghan peace talks could begin mid-September 2020. While it is too soon to forecast the outcome of the peace talks, for the first time in nearly 20 years efforts are underway to negotiate a lasting peace between the Taliban and the Government of Afghanistan, potentially reducing suffering for millions of people.

There are already signs however, that the path to any peace agreement will be a bloody one. Significant spikes in violence were observed in the first eight months of 2020 leading up to the talks, with continued high numbers of civilian casualties. The start of the peace talks in mid-September 2020 was also met with a sharp rise in hostilities in October and November 2020, with increases in civilian casualties, as each party attempts to strengthen their negotiating positions. Other Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs) have also been active during this time, foreshadowing potential for further spoiler attacks as the peace talks continue into 2021. The 2-3 August 2020 complex attack on Jalalabad prison claimed by Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) that resulted in the deaths of 29 people and the escape of approximately 1,300 prisoners, revealed a potential new approach and increase in NSAG capacities.

Thankfully 2020 saw a relatively low number of people affected by natural disasters (104,200 in 2020 compared to 306,500 in 2019). However, this has been more than offset by the devastating impacts of COVID-19. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 was recorded in Hirat Province in February of 2020. Since then, COVID-19 has spread to all 34 provinces, resulting in more than 48,000 confirmed cases and 1,900 deaths and throwing Afghanistan into an unprecedented health, social and economic crisis. Confirmed cases are likely to be a substantial under-estimation due to low testing rates with estimates suggesting that by June of 2020 more than 30 per cent of the population may have already been exposed to the virus. Measures implemented to slow the spread of the virus, including lockdowns, border closures, and suspension of formal and informal livelihoods activities have, in turn, triggered a sharp contraction in the country’s economy, crippling household debt, reduced remittances, elevated food prices and exacerbated rising food insecurity.

Over the past five years, the food security situation in Afghanistan has steadily deteriorated with the percentage of food insecure people doubling (from 37 per cent in September 2015 to 76 per cent in November 2020), while the proportion of people in crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity has increased more than five-fold (from 8 per cent to 42 per cent over the same period). The 2020 Seasonal Food Security Assessment (SFSA) shows that with the onset of COVID-19, the scale of acute food insecurity in the country is now comparable to the situation faced in 2018-2019 – the worst year for food insecurity in recent memory which resulted from a devastating drought. The number of people in crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity (Integrated Food Security Phase Classification - IPC 3+) has risen from 13.9 million in November 2019 to 16.9 million, or 42 per cent of the population in November 2020. Food insecurity, forced displacement, low access to health services, and poor access to water and sanitation have also led to a sharp decline in the nutritional status of children. Almost half of children under five need life-saving nutrition support, as do a quarter of pregnant and lactating women (PLW).

The economic and social conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic have also exacerbated protection risks for vulnerable families, many of whom had already depleted limited financial, mental, and social coping capacities due to prolonged conflict or recurrent natural disasters. The additional stress from the pandemic has pushed households to adopt negative coping mechanisms, including increasingly requiring children to work or marry to offset financial burdens. The economic downturn in the region has also triggered record numbers of voluntary and involuntary return of migrants back to Afghanistan. 2020 was the largest return year on record for undocumented Afghan migrants with 824,000 as of early December, exceeding the 806,000 who returned from Iran and Pakistan in 2018.

Despite these escalating needs, there has not been a commensurate increase in funding in 2020, resulting in substantial unmet needs with consequences for 2021. In particular, many of the more complex or durable solutions planned for 2020 could not be implemented. Thus, while substantial numbers of people have been assisted (7.6m people by the end of quarter three), much of this has been with higher-reach, lower-cost COVID-19 response activities and not through the delivery of the more comprehensive packages of assistance the humanitarian community had sought to deliver. Financial strains and fear of catching COVID-19 meant that facility-based primary health and trauma services were under-utilised in 2020, resulting in deteriorating health needs in 2021. The delayed rollout of social safety net assistance by development actors in 2020 is also a factor in escalating humanitarian needs for 2021.

Scope of analysis

This Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO) looks at likely evolution of humanitarian needs in Afghanistan throughout 2021 with an inter-sectoral approach to the analysis that recognises the multi-dimensional nature of people’s needs across sectors. The situation beyond 2021 remains uncertain with a range of risks that could upset planning assumptions. These risks and potential implications to 2021 planning are outlined in the risks section of this analysis (pg 51). While the current intra-Afghan negotiations present an opportunity to reduce harm to civilians and address humanitarian needs, increased violence seems likely to dominate the path to any peace agreement. Regional dynamics and anticipated additional waves of COVID-19 have the potential to threaten a hoped-for economic recovery. Thus, forward projections beyond 2021 would be unreliable and so have not been included in this analysis.

All 2021 calculations are based on the joint planning assumption that the current security, economic, health and environmental context is likely to deteriorate over the year ahead, with different seasonal influences on needs throughout the year including the onset of winter, rainfall patterns, agricultural planting and harvest seasons, the fighting season and others (see pg 51 for seasonal influences on needs).

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