KABUL (Reuters) - Funding shortfalls have forced the World Food Program to cut rations for up to 1 million people in Afghanistan, a WFP official said, an early sign that aid money may dwindle as the international combat mission winds down.
The U.N. food assistance agency, which runs on donations from member countries, faces a gap of about $30 million for its program in Afghanistan, country director Claude Jibidar told Reuters in an interview.
"We have had to cut down the rations of the people we are assisting, just so that we can buy some time, so we don’t stop altogether," Jibidar said.
He said the cuts, to 1,500 calories a day from 2,100, would affect up to 1 million people, many of whom have had to flee their homes because of the escalating war between the Taliban insurgency and the Western-backed Afghan government.
For those displaced by the war, the prospect that food aid could stop is grim.
"If the food rations get stopped, we will die of hunger," said Bibi Fatima, an elderly woman who lives with eight family members in a mud hut on Kabul's eastern outskirts.
The family was forced to flee their home in Helmand, a southern province where fighting has been fierce, and they have no income except what Fatima's grandchildren bring in from begging on the streets.
She said she had received food from a U.N. agency in past winters, and was counting on help this coming season.
"We don't have firewood and food to eat. If our children get sick, we have no money to treat them."
With Afghanistan's harsh winter looming, Jibidar said the WFP has only about six weeks left in which to deposit advance stores of food meant to supply mountainous areas of Afghanistan that usually get cut off for months at a time.
Afghanistan has been the recipient of tens of billions of dollars in aid since 2001, when the Taliban's harsh government based on a strict interpretation of Islam was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion.
The country remains in great need. The WFP helps feed a total of 3.7 million Afghans, or about 10 percent of the population.
With most foreign combat troops due to withdraw at the end of this year, many humanitarian groups fear aid flows will dry up as donors focus on other crises, including combating the Ebola virus and helping refugees from the wars in Syria and Iraq.
Already there are signs of Afghanistan fatigue among donors. This year's U.N. humanitarian appeal for the country - $400 million - is so far $158 million short, even though the U.N. lowered its appeal by 14 percent this year.
Danielle Moylan, advocacy manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council, said that while international donors have been generous to Afghanistan over the years, the country's needs are likely to only increase.
"We certainly hope that it doesn't mean that donors are turning their backs on Afghanistan," Moylan said. "If you are withdrawing militarily, you must increase humanitarian assistance because the needs are increasing."
Most international troops will leave Afghanistan at the end of this year, winding up the combat phase of the mission that began with ousting the Taliban over the shelter they gave the al Qaeda planners of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Sonya Hepinstall