By Charlotte Greenfield
(Reuters) - The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) had to cut rations to another 2 million Afghans this month and is warning of a "catastrophic" winter if funding runs out with little food for remote communities in place, the agency's country director said.
The cut in rations comes amidst growing alarm over shrinking aid for Afghanistan, where a U.N. humanitarian response plan is only about a quarter funded, even after the budget was downgraded in the face of funding shortfalls.
WFP funding for food and cash assistance is expected to run out by the end of October and the agency has had to steadily cut assistance through the year to 10 million Afghans.
The positioning of food to areas that will be cut off in winter has also been limited. The WFP said if no funding comes through, 90% of remote areas in need will be cut off without food and even in accessible locations, people will get no supplies during the harsh weather.
"That is the catastrophe that we have to avert," WFP Afghanistan Country Director Hsiao-Wei Lee told Reuters.
About three-quarters of Afghanistan's people are in need of humanitarian aid as their country emerges from decades of conflict under an internationally isolated Taliban administration that took over as U.S.-backed foreign forces withdrew in 2021.
Development assistance that for years formed the backbone of government finances has been cut and the administration is subject to sanctions and central bank assets abroad have been frozen.
Restrictions by the Taliban on women, including stopping most female Afghan humanitarian staff from working, are an obstacle to formal recognition and have also put off donors, many of whom have turned their attention to other humanitarian crises.
"What I do in my engagements with them is remind them that at the end of the day, we must focus on those who are most in need," Lee said of donors.
"The cost of inaction is ultimately borne and paid for by the most vulnerable and poor mothers and children."
Almost 20% of the people the WFP helps are women heading households who Lee said were getting more desperate as the restrictions on women and the economic crisis meant they had fewer ways of earning.
"WFP is often the last lifeline for those who don't have other options," Lee said.
"It's extremely difficult not only for myself but for our team to have to explain to mothers that we can't help them."
Three million people are now getting food aid but after October, they might be getting nothing.
The WFP needs $1 billion in funding to provide food aid and carry out planned projects until March, Lee said.
For Kabul resident Baba Karim, 45, the cash he has got twice this year from the WFP was been a vital supplement to the less than $2 a day he earns working odd jobs at a market with a push cart.
"I'm so worried about what will happen next, now that the assistance has ended," said the father of five.
"I lie awake at night worrying about the future of my children."
(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield, additional reporting by Reuters TV; editing by Robert Birsel)