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Food consumption in rural areas improves with the harvest, while urban poor are expected to face gaps

  • Food Security Outlook
  • Afghanistan
  • June 2020 - January 2021
Food consumption in rural areas improves with the harvest, while urban poor are expected to face gaps

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  • Key Messages
  • Key Messages
    • Due to above-average cumulative precipitation from October 2019 to May 2020, national wheat production is expected to be near average. However, slightly below average production is expected in localized northern areas due to rainfall deficits from October to December, and in localized eastern and southern areas due to crop diseases. Meanwhile, vegetable and fruit production in eastern areas is expected to be average, supporting access to income. Due to the above-average precipitation, rangeland conditions for livestock are also average to above average, with no major atypical livestock migration expected this year. Currently, increased access to food from the harvest is expected to be improving outcomes to Stressed (IPC Phase 2) in most rural areas.

    • In urban areas, the easing of COVID-19 control measures in May has led to increasing labor availability and improvement in food consumption for some poor households. However, due to severe impacts of COVID-19 on job markets and higher prices of staple food commodities, many households have not recovered. Humanitarian assistance and gifts (Zakat) are expected to have prevented large consumption gaps for many in recent months. Despite this, many urban poor are expected to be facing some consumption gaps, with Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes likely to persist in many urban areas through at least January 2021 in the absence of additional assistance.

    • Between January and May 2020, about 86,400 individuals fled their homes due to conflict, with the greatest number of displacements in the eastern, northern, northeastern, and southern parts of the country. Due to separation from livelihoods, many of these households are likely to be facing food consumption gaps and Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes. Additionally, more than 300,000 undocumented migrants have returned to Afghanistan from January to May 2020. Most of these migrants have come from Iran, given the weak economy and the severity of COVID-19 pandemic.


    Current Situation

    Average to above-average cumulative precipitation occurred during the wet season from October 2019 to May 2020 across most of the country, with the highest precipitation totals recorded in eastern, southern, southeastern, and western areas (Figure 1). However, in the northeastern Badakhshan Province, precipitation was significantly below average. Snowpack development was also below average at higher elevations – especially in the northern and northeastern parts of the country – throughout the 2019/20 season. In contrast, above-average snow accumulation was reported at lower elevations in eastern and central parts of the country during the same period. Field reports indicate that most areas received sufficient and timely precipitation during 2019/20 wet season to support irrigation requirements of winter crops.

    In most lower elevation areas of the country, the wheat harvest is near conclusion, while it is yet to commence in the higher elevation areas. In areas where first season crops have been harvested, preparations are underway for the planting of second season crops – mainly rice, maize, and pulses.

    In general, favorable climate conditions during the 2019/20 wet season have led to expectations for near average national wheat production in Afghanistan. However, slightly below average production is expected in some localized areas due to the impacts of rainfall deficits and crop diseases. In some rainfed areas of northern Afghanistan, early season rainfall deficits during October-November 2019 are expected to have led to slightly reduced wheat production, as farmers reduced area planted in favor of other crops such as oilseeds. Meanwhile, wheat rusts in eastern Afghanistan are expected to have impacted production in localized affected areas. Similarly, above-average precipitation and humidity during April-May 2020 led to widespread wheat yellow rust in southern parts of Afghanistan, which later spread to some northern areas as well. The quality of harvested wheat is expected to be poor in impacted areas, with evidence provided by significantly below average farmgate prices.

    In eastern parts of the country, fruit and vegetable production are expected to be near average. Due to border closures with Pakistan from April to mid-May, farmers have been able to sell their products at good prices in the absence of imports from Pakistan. As a result, income from fruit and vegetable production in the eastern region has been slightly above average levels. Meanwhile, domestic demand for vegetables and fruits increased as prices of other commodities increased sharply in March. These products – particularly vegetables – have played a significant role in supporting food consumption for many households. In southern parts of the country, income from the sale of poppy was also at average levels, and fruit crops are maturing well.

    Meanwhile, average to above-average precipitation in the 2019/20 season has also contributed to natural disasters in Afghanistan during this time. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), around 58,000 individuals were affected by natural disasters from October 2019 to May 2020. Out of this number, 20,000 were affected by flash floods and nearly 36,000 by heavy snowfall. However, the total affected by natural disasters is lower relative to the total during the same time period of last year, when almost 260,000 were impacted by flash floods. This year, the southeastern and southern parts of the country were the most affected by natural disasters.

    With the escalation of the COVID-19 outbreak in the region, many countries responded by limiting their trade with other countries to contain the virus and/or protect their national food supplies. In mid-March, Pakistan shut its border with Afghanistan for all imports and exports, while in late March Kazakhstan introduced an export quota on wheat. Both countries play a significant role in food availability and prices in Afghanistan; Pakistan typically supplies or serves as an entry point for rice, some fruits and vegetables, cooking oil, pulses, and other commodities, while Kazakhstan mainly supplies wheat. Furthermore, at the end of March, Afghanistan imposed lockdown restrictions in main cities, with stricter measures enforced two weeks later. All of these measures contributed to increased staple food prices in urban markets, particularly among imported commodities (Figure 2).

    Between early March and late May, wheat flour prices in the Kabul market increased by 24 percent, while prices of cooking oil and pulses increased by 36 percent. Though the price per unit of bread did not increase, the quantity of flour used in bread reportedly decreased, resulting in the price per kilogram of bread increasing by 32 percent over this time period. With the start of the harvest in lower elevation areas in May, upward pressure on wheat flour prices was eased. Also in May, Pakistan eased border restrictions, Kazakhstan increased exportable wheat quotas, and the government of Afghanistan eased lockdown measures. These measures further reduced pressure on wheat flour prices. As of June 22, Pakistan’s border has been fully opened for all exports and imports. Kazakhstan’s export restrictions were reportedly lifted as of June, although this has not been confirmed by government sources.

    Despite the easing of control measures in main cities, availability of casual labor opportunities remains significantly below average, due primarily to lack of demand for labor in the construction and manufacturing sectors. Supply of labor has also increased in recent months. In March, urban markets experienced a significant influx of casual laborers when thousands of undocumented Afghan migrants in Iran – in addition to some banned Afghan migrants in Pakistan – returned and sought labor opportunities in Afghanistan. As such, reduced demand for labor in combination with increased domestic labor supply is putting downward pressure on wages. Based on data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL), on average, unskilled labor wages remained stable between April and May 2020 at levels five percent below the three-year average.

    Due to decreased casual labor wages and increased food prices, the terms of trade (TOT) between the two have significantly deteriorated in recent months. At the national level, the TOT deteriorated five percent from April to May, reaching levels 31 percent lower than the same time last year and 36 percent lower than the three-year average (Figure 3). Paktya, Nimroz, Kunduz, and Faryab have been the worst affected provinces, with TOT in May more than 50 percent below the average. Khost was the only province where the TOT was not below average.

    As a result of above-average precipitation during the 2019/20 wet season, pasture conditions are currently average to above average for livestock grazing across most of the country, which has facilitated improved livestock body conditions and reproduction. No significant atypical livestock disease outbreak has been reported in the season thus far. On average, livestock prices remained stable between April and May 2020. At the national level, livestock prices in May were 14 percent higher than the same time last year and 16 percent higher than the three-year average. In May, the highest prices relative to last year were reported in Zabul Province (57 percent higher) and Balkh Province (56 percent higher). In Badghis Province, where livestock conditions have been gradually improving since 2017/18 when the area was severely hit by drought, livestock prices are 66 percent higher than the three-year average – the highest relative to average across all provinces.

    However, improvement in livestock prices has not been sufficient to offset higher food prices. Hence, the pastoralists’ terms of trade (TOT) – between livestock and wheat flour – deteriorated by a further 4 percent between April and May, to reach levels 19 percent lower than last year and 22 percent lower than the three-average at the national level (Figure 3). The lowest TOTs relative to average have been reported in Uruzgan, Laghman, Paktya, and Kabul Provinces. Badghis was the only province where the TOT was significantly above average in May, by 19 percent.

    According to the International Organization of Migration (IOM), more than 300,000 undocumented Afghan migrants returned from Iran and Pakistan between January and May 2020, only 13 percent of whom received humanitarian assistance upon arrival in Afghanistan (Figure 4). Of all the returnees, the vast majority (more than 99 percent) returned from Iran. With COVID-19 declared a pandemic in March 2020, an influx of undocumented Afghan migrants began returning from Iran through Herat Province. Iran was among the first countries where the outbreak started; as such, the arriving returnees contributed to the spread of the disease in Afghanistan, first in Herat Province and then across the country as they returned to their homes. The COVID-19 pandemic severely affected Iran’s economy, reducing labor opportunities for everybody, including Afghans working there. As a result, levels of remittances from Iran have significantly declined since start of the pandemic, according to key informants.

    According to UNOCHA updates, approximately 86,400 individuals have fled their homes due to conflict across 27 provinces from January to May 2020. This total is significantly lower than the total over the same time period last year, at least partly attributed to the signing of the peace deal between United States and Taliban on February 29, 2020. Out of the 86,400 internally displaced persons (IDPs), around 52,000 (60 percent) were supported with either food packages or cash-for-food at the time of displacement. According to the Afghanistan Humanitarian Response Plan June 2020 revision, food assistance provided to IDPs is typically a one-time three-month package sufficient to cover 2,100 kcal/person/day. Throughout 2020, the highest levels of displacement have occurred in the eastern region.

    According to the most recent available national nutrition survey (NNS) conducted in 2013, the prevalence of Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) at the national level was 9.5 percent (95% CI 8.7 – 10.4) at the time of data collection. According to the more recent available survey data, acute malnutrition remains a concern across much of Afghanistan. A SMART assessment conducted between March and April 2020 in Nangarhar Province by Action Against Hunger (AAH) shows that the prevalence of GAM as measured by weight-for-height z-score (WHZ) for 6 to 59 month old children was 9.6 percent (95% CI 7.5 - 12.2), classified as an “alert” level nutrition situation according to the IPC framework. However, the same survey shows that prevalence of GAM by mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC) was 10.1 percent (95% CI 7.9 - 12.9), which indicates a “serious” nutrition situation. In Nimroz Province, the prevalence of GAM by WHZ in 6 to 59 month old children was estimated at 8.4 percent (95% CI 6.1 – 11.7) and in Parwan Province at 8.1 percent (95% CI 5.8 - 11.2). Both provinces are classified as “alert” level nutrition situations.

    Based on Integrated Management of Acute Malnutrition (IMAM) data from the Public Nutrition Department (PND) of the Ministry of Public Health of Afghanistan (MoPH), nearly 132,000 children under five identified as acutely malnourished and enrolled in the IMAM program between March and May 2020. Of those who enrolled, 104,000 children (79 percent) were successfully cured. However, the enrollment of malnourished children significantly decreased in April and May, and levels were lower than during the same period of the previous year. Movement restrictions and fear of being contaminated by COVID-19 at health facilities likely contributed to reduced admission of malnourished children into the programs during the COVID-19 outbreak in Afghanistan.

    At end of April, the government of Afghanistan started distributing flatbread (“naan”) to poor urban households in Kabul and, later, in other cities in Afghanistan. Initially the program was designed to include three phases. During phase one, each household received two naan per member (an average of 10 per household) per day. According to Kabul Municipality, the first phase that lasted for 40 days and covered 311,320 households in Kabul, with 15 million naans distributed. The Ministry of Finance reports that over 36 million USD was spent on phase one of this program, with 14.8 million USD spent in Kabul. At least partially attributable to budget constraints, the program was stopped after lockdown measures were lifted

    Overall, impacts of COVID-19 on rural populations have been minimal, and rural households have been able to sustain their livelihoods. With the start of harvest season in lower elevation areas of Afghanistan, many rural livelihoods opportunities – including agriculture labor – have resumed. As a result of increased access to food from own production and income from labor opportunities, food security outcomes have improved in many rural areas. However, given high levels of labor supply and restricted opportunities, many poor households remain unable to meet all essential non-food needs, with Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes prevalent in most rural areas. Meanwhile, some areas that have not harvested yet (in the northeastern and the central highlands) or where conflict has severely impacted livelihoods continue to face Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes. Furthermore, households that usually rely on remittances from Iran – especially in the northern region and the central highlands – are among the worst affected, with Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes likely.

    In urban areas, many poor households who typically rely on casual labor and petty trade have experienced significant reductions in income-earning due to the impacts of COVID-19. Despite the recent ease in control measures in main urban areas, the labor market has only partially recovered, and these households continue to face lack of income-earning opportunities. The reduction in remittances from Iran is also affecting some urban poor, especially in the northern region. At the same time, food prices are atypically high. As a result, many households have been purchasing food on credit, borrowing from relatives, and relying on humanitarian assistance and gifts (Zakat). However, given insufficient provision of assistance, many households are still expected to be facing some consumption gaps. As a result of insufficient income to meet all food needs, Crisis (IPC Phase 3) and higher food security outcomes are likely prevalent among the urban poor, with food assistance needed to fill consumption gaps.


    The June 2020 to January 2021 most likely scenario is based on the following national-level assumptions:

    • The main harvest of wheat is expected to be near average at the national level. However, localized below-average production is expected in some rainfed northern areas that experienced early season precipitation deficits and in some eastern and southern areas where diseases caused some crop damage.
    • Based on global trends and available information from leading health experts including the WHO and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to continue in the near to medium term (1-6 months).
    • Despite the high caseload of COVID-19 in Afghanistan, lockdown measures are not likely to be reinstated on a large scale during the scenario period, given limited ability of government to enforce the measures or effectively provide food assistance to citizens. However, some localized and temporary increases in control measures are possible in areas where COVID-19 caseload is increasing more rapidly. Border restrictions and school closures are expected to remain in place in the near term (1-3 months). Based on historical patterns, the border with Pakistan is expected to remain largely open to trade, though with fluctuations in restrictions expected throughout the scenario period.
    • Based on current levels of supply and the easing of export restrictions by Kazakhstan, overall imports of wheat are expected to be near average and sufficient to fulfill Afghanistan’s import needs.
    • Given expectations for near average national production and imports, retail wheat flour prices are expected to follow seasonal trends, though remain above average throughout the scenario period. It is anticipated that rice prices will remain stable during the scenario period due to stable market supply from Pakistan.
    • Given significantly above-average numbers of undocumented migrant Afghan workers returning from Iran in March, expectations for eased border restrictions, and below-average labor availability in urban areas of Afghanistan, it is anticipated that many undocumented Afghans will return to Iran to seek labor opportunities in the medium term. However, overall numbers of Afghan migrant workers abroad – particularly in Iran – are expected to remain below average and lower relative to the pre-COVID period, due to insecurity along travel routes and poor economic conditions in Iran. This is expected to result in below-average levels of remittances from Iran. Remittances from Gulf countries are expected to remain normal.
    • Income from the sale of cash crops and fruits are expected to be normal throughout the scenario period.
    • Due to the general economic slowdown, availability of non-agricultural labor opportunities – particularly in main urban markets – is expected to be below-average in the near to medium term. Availability of agricultural labor opportunities is expected to be near normal.
    • Given favorable rangeland conditions, livestock body conditions and productivity will likely be at average levels, and no major livestock migration is anticipated. Given current above average prices, livestock prices will likely remain slightly above average during the scenario period. During July due to Eid Ul Azaha, it is anticipated that livestock prices will increase compared to the rest of the season, as is typical.
    • Given second season rainfall (March – May) and current water availability, it is expected that near average area will be planted under second season crops of mainly rice and maize. Production of these crops is anticipated to be near average, with the harvest taken in September-October 2020.
    • Given expectations for first and second season harvests, households food stocks are expected to remain at near average levels throughout the scenario period. Most poor households will likely be able to maintain their food stocks until around December 2020. As the lean season progresses, an increasing number of poor households will exhaust food stocks and become reliant on market purchases and in-kind assistance by relief organizations.
    • Insecurity/conflict is anticipated to increase typically with the warmer weather during summer. Increased levels of displacement are likely during this time.
    • Given below-average access to income and above-average food prices, the prevalence of acute malnutrition at the national level is likely to increase during the scenario period, particularly in the near to medium term in urban areas. Higher levels of acute malnutrition are also likely in the conflict-affected districts due to internal displacement, disrupted livelihoods, and decreased access to health and nutrition services.
    • Due to the impacts of COVID-19, humanitarian assistance is expected to increase to above average levels throughout 2020. According to FSAC, the provision of two-month packages of humanitarian food assistance averaging 70 USD per month (10 USD per household member per month; average household size of seven) for 3 million people in mostly urban areas is largely funded as part of the COVID-19 response, though distribution plans have not been specified.
    • Based on preliminary forecasts, the beginning of the October 2020 – January 2021 precipitation season is likely to be below average. However, planting is expected to be average as the majority of winter wheat is irrigated.

    Most Likely Food Security Outcomes

    In most rural areas, near average agricultural production and good livestock productivity are anticipated to improve food consumption during the June to September period as households access food from own production. During this time, most rural households will be expected to meet all food consumption needs, with Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes likely. Beginning in December 2020, an increasing number of households will be expected to exhaust food stocks and become dependent on market purchases. Given the poor labor market and expectations for above-average staple food prices, households’ access to food will likely be restricted, with Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes likely to emerge in some areas in January 2020.

    In most of the central highlands, the lean season will continue until the winter wheat harvest starts in July/August. With start of the harvesting season, many poor households in these areas will likely experience improvement in food consumption and Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes from June to September 2020. However, their stocks typically last only a few months. As such, an increasing number of households are expected to exhaust food stocks as the lean season starts in November/December. As a result, households will likely be unable to meet all food needs, with Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes expected throughout the remainder of the projection period. In higher elevation areas of Badakhshan where harvest has not started yet, Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes are expected to persist through September, with Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes likely to emerge with the start of wheat harvest in October/November.

    Meanwhile, in urban areas, many poor households will likely continue to face significantly constrained purchasing power due to below-average availability of labor opportunities, below-average remittance levels, and above-average food prices. Due to decreased income-earning opportunities, poor households will likely continue to buy less nutritious/less preferred foods and consume lower quantities of food. Urban households who receive two-month packages of humanitarian food assistance would be expected to face Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes while the assistance lasts, but would likely deteriorate to Crisis (IPC Phase 3) as the lean season progresses.

    Internally displaced persons have lost their ability to maintain their livelihoods and cultivate their lands. As a result, newly displaced households who receive three-month packages of humanitarian assistance are expected to face Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes for the three-month period following displacement, with deterioration to Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes expected following that due to the poor labor market. In addition to causing displacement, conflict and natural disasters will likely decrease access to health and nutrition services. This may further deteriorate the nutrition condition of the most vulnerable groups, such as under-five children and pregnant and lactating women (PLWs).

    Events that Might Change the Outlook

    Possible events over the next eight months that could change the most-likely scenario:



    Impact on food security outcomes


    Borders remain closed or labor migration does not resume to the extent anticipated

    This would continue constraining access to income among households dependent on labor migration and remittances throughout Afghanistan, in both rural and urban areas. This would likely have negative consequences on food security outcomes, with Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse outcomes likely to persist among the worst affected.


    Border with Pakistan is re-closed in the June – September period

    This would affect households involved in horticulture businesses and would likely reduce income from crop sales, with the southern region most affected. Area-level Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes would still be expected.


    Pandemic of COVID-19 worsens beyond what is anticipated

    Direct impacts on affected households would include reduced ability of household members to work, increased health costs, and deterioration of mental health. Indirect impacts would likely include further impacts on income-earning and food prices. In addition, Afghan exports would face stricter restrictions in the global market, with adverse consequences on households and national income. Worst affected households would likely face Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse outcomes.


    Food prices further increase atypically due to COVID-19 impacts

    This would further deteriorate purchasing power of poor households. This would particularly impact market-dependent urban households, but would be expected to also increasingly impact rural households as food stocks are exhausted around December. This would likely cause additional households to deteriorate to Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse outcomes, and would likely accelerate the deterioration of rural areas to Crisis (IPC Phase 3) as the lean season progresses.


    Peace deal between Afghanistan government and Taliban

    This would likely reduce levels of conflict. Causalities and displacements would likely decrease. Positive impacts on livelihoods would be experienced over subsequent years.

    For more information on the outlook for specific areas of concern, please click the download button at the top of the page for the full report.

    Figures This map of Afghanistan shows mostly blue colors, indicating rainfall of 20-300 mm above average. However, Badakhshan provinc

    Figure 1

    Figure 1

    Source: FEWS NET/USGS

    This is a graph showing that the prices of wheat flour, bread, cooking oil, and pulses increased from the second half of Marc

    Figure 2

    Figure 2

    Source: FEWS NET, based on WFP data

    This is a graph showing that terms of trade were significantly below average in May 2020 in most provinces of Afghanistan.

    Figure 3

    Figure 3

    Source: FEWS NET, based on MAIL data

    This is a graph showing the influx of over 150,000 Afghan returnees in the month of March, up from nearly 50,000 per month in

    Figure 4

    Figure 4

    Source: FEWS NET, based on IOM data

    This is a graph showing that wheat flour prices are projected to increase between May 2020 and January 2021 and remain above

    Figure 5

    Figure 5

    Source: FEWS NET calculation based on MAIL data

    To project food security outcomes, FEWS NET develops a set of assumptions about likely events, their effects, and the probable responses of various actors. FEWS NET analyzes these assumptions in the context of current conditions and local livelihoods to arrive at a most likely scenario for the coming eight months. Learn more here.

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