Afghanistan is facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis with a very real risk of systemic collapse and human catastrophe. In addition to unimaginable human costs, this humanitarian crisis is reversing many of the gains from the past two decades, including women’s rights.
The end of the 20-year armed conflict between the Taliban and the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces in August 2021, and the simultaneous takeover of the country by the Taliban, has ushered in a new era characterized by rapid economic decline, hunger and risk of malnutrition, inflation driven by global commodity shocks, drastic rises in both urban and rural poverty, a near-collapse of the national public health system, a stifling of the media and civil society sectors, and almost-total exclusion of half the population – women and girls – from public life.
The collapse of the previous government resulted in a suspension of direct international development assistance, which previously accounted for 75% of public expenditure, including the maintenance of the public health system. In the absence of development activity, the Afghan people are experiencing a backward slide evidenced by the surge of humanitarian needs across the country.
Afghanistan’s population was estimated to pass 43 million in 2022, with 49% women and girls, and one of the highest youth populations in the world, with 47% of the population under 15 years old. The population is expected to grow at 2.3% per annum, one of the steepest rates in the region – and so the intertwined environmental, economic and protection crises, particularly for girls, will have a far-reaching and potentially catastrophic impact far into the future.
In 2023, a staggering 28.3 million people (two-thirds of Afghanistan’s population) will need urgent humanitarian assistance in order to survive as the country enters its third consecutive year of drought-like conditions and the second year of crippling economic decline, all the while still reeling from the effects of 40 years of conflict and recurrent natural disasters. High levels of unemployment and sustained inflation of key commodity prices have caused the average household’s debt to increase, challenging people’s coping mechanisms and thwarting the already-fragile economy’s ability to adapt to shocks.
While in previous years, humanitarian needs have been largely driven by conflict, the key drivers of humanitarian need in 2023 are multidimensional: drought, climate change, protection threats, particularly for women and girls, and the economic crisis. Nevertheless, conflict, natural disasters, the lingering effects of war, and recent large-scale conflict displacement continue to prevent people from building resilience and moving towards recovery and solutions. In 2022, there was a change in the drivers of humanitarian needs, as household shocks shifted from COVID-19 and conflict in 2021, to drought, climate change and economic decline.
Afghanistan’s economic crisis is widespread, with more than half of the households experiencing an economic shock in the last six months. The economy immediately went into free-fall, with the disruption to markets, financial and trade mechanisms, the freezing of US$9.5 billion in central bank reserves, loans and the sudden suspension of direct development aid.
Within this reality, 17 million people face acute hunger in 2023, including 6 million people at emergency levels of food insecurity, one step away from famine – and one of the highest figures worldwide. Deterioration is expected in the first quarter of 2023 due to the simultaneous effects of winter and the lean season, sustained high food prices, reduced income and unemployment and continued economic decline.
Afghanistan is highly prone to natural hazards, whose frequency and intensity are exacerbated by the effects of climate change, increasing humanitarian needs and structural limitations in mitigating disaster impact. The number of atypical sudden-onset disasters, such as floods and earthquakes, was higher in 2022 than preceding years and the scenario anticipates that these patterns may be the norm moving ahead.
Severe needs from drought have reached a crisis point. As of December 2022, Afghanistan was experiencing the first triple-dip impact of La Niña globally since 1998-2001, which was also a period of multi-year drought and high levels of food insecurity in Afghanistan. The forecast is at least a 50% chance of La Niña continuing from January to March 2023 before returning to ENSO neutral. The 2022 Whole of Afghanistan Assessment (WoAA) identified drought as the most frequently reported shock experienced in the six months prior to data collection, and the prolonged drought is resulting in the drying of surface water sources such as springs, and a significant drop in groundwater levels. As a result of the ongoing drought event and water crisis, the proportion of households experiencing barriers to accessing water rose from 48% in 2021 to 60% in 2022.
The other main driver of humanitarian need is the traditional gender norms and patriarchal culture which have long reinforced discrimination against women and girls in Afghanistan, increasing their vulnerability and decreasing their capacity to recover from shocks, and leaving them disproportionately affected during crises. Multiple studies show that Afghanistan is the worst place in the world to be a woman or a girl, with the situation only deteriorating since the takeover by the Taliban which continues to fully curtail women and girls’ rights. The curtailment of Afghan women’s enjoyment of their rights is uniquely severe. Restrictions targeting women and girls impact many areas of their lives, limiting their freedom of movement and their access to essential services and livelihoods, with negative economic, social, physical and psychological consequences.
Within the broader humanitarian access environment, participation in the humanitarian response has deteriorated for Afghan women staff since August 2021. Amid a growing set of restrictions curtailing their basic rights and freedoms, women humanitarian workers face increasingly restrictive challenges affecting their ability to travel to beneficiaries. The 24 December 2022 directive barring women from working for national or international NGOs will have a devastating humanitarian impact on millions of people across the country and will prevent a sea of vulnerable women and girls from receiving services and life-saving assistance.
Scope of Analysis
This Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO) presents a predicated evolution of humanitarian needs in Afghanistan in 2023, using an inter-sectoral approach to the analysis that recognizes the multidimensional nature of people’s needs across sectors. Underpinning the Afghanistan HNO is the multi-sector needs assessment – the 2022 WoAA – which provides a robust snapshot of the situation and humanitarian needs in all parts of the country.
All 2023 calculations are based on joint planning assumptions outlined in section 2.1 – Risk Analysis – in regard to the evolution of the political and security situation, with different seasonal influences on needs throughout the year including the onset of winter around November, rainfall patterns, agricultural planting and harvest seasons, and others. Greater emphasis in the analysis has been placed on the drought impact and economic fallout from the crisis, under the assumption that large-scale conflict is likely to be a relatively smaller factor in driving needs than in previous years. This analysis will be updated on a rolling basis as conditions change.
Exposure to shocks is felt across all population groups, highlighting the need for a response that is targeted accordingly. Emerging distinctions between people in need in urban and rural settings have become starker and therefore warrant a stronger articulation of the needs of each group, which are now highlighted in the analytical framework of the 2023 HNO. Within the wider group of people in need, other population groups of concern have specific vulnerabilities that will be articulated where they vary from the wider set of humanitarian needs in the majority of the population. At the same time, most other Afghans require the continuation and restoration of basic services to prevent them from slipping further into humanitarian need.
In addition, the category of newly displaced people includes both those who are displaced by conflict and natural disasters (including drought), and vulnerable internal migrants, who have been forced to move for economic or political reasons.
The population groups with the greatest humanitarian needs are:
Vulnerable people with acute humanitarian needs in rural areas
Vulnerable people with acute humanitarian needs in urban areas
Shock affected non-displaced people (people affected by a sudden-onset disaster, primarily floods and earthquakes, who have not left their area of origin)
Recently internally-displaced persons and vulnerable internal migrants
Recent cross-border returnees – Refugees and asylum seekers
Humanitarian conditions, severity and people in need
Given the broad scope and depth of need nationwide, there is significant commonality of humanitarian conditions between the population groups. As such, the conditions of the nearly 28.3 million people – two thirds of the country – that fall into the “vulnerable people with acute humanitarian needs” and “shock-affected non-displaced”, continue to be widely reflective of the baseline conditions for all vulnerable people affected by humanitarian shock in the country, as has been articulated in previous HNOs.
The humanitarian conditions created by Afghanistan’s multidimensional crisis continue to impact all parts of the country and affect every aspect of Afghan life. In 2023, a total of 28.3 million people (two thirds of the population) need humanitarian assistance to survive, of whom 14.7 million are in extreme need (severity 4). A total of 6.4 million are women and 15.2 million are children; 6.1 million live in urban areas and 22.2 million live in rural areas, and 15% of all households have at least one member with a disability.
There are needs in every province of the country, with extreme need in 33 out of 34 provinces and 27 out of 34 major cities/provincial capitals with the rest in severe need, indicating how widespread the crisis is across the country.
The number of people in need (PiN) of humanitarian assistance in 2022 (28.3 million people) has increased from 24.4 million in 2022 (a 16% increase) and 18.4 million in 2021 (a 54% increase). The main reason for the increase in the PiN is due to the dramatic increase in WASH needs (up 40%) and protection needs (up 25%) – reflecting the compound impact of the drought and the increasingly restrictive measures impacting women and girls – and includes all secondary school aged girls denied access to education.
Even with two thirds of the country already having humanitarian needs in 2023, further deterioration is highly possible unless the root causes and drivers of need are addressed. Substantial investments in water infrastructure, sustainable agriculture, alternative livelihoods, gender policy reform and macroeconomic stabilization are urgently needed, along with the stabilization of services supporting basic human needs – especially health care and social services – to reduce dependence on humanitarian actors to provide emergency care and transition to longer-term support. (Edited by Khadijah Kamili)