About 24 million Afghans are in dire need of humanitarian aid and are considered food-insecure ahead of a harsh winter under Taliban rule, a leading Red Cross official told The National on Wednesday.
Economic sanctions and restrictions from the international community have hit Afghanistan hard since the takeover of the Taliban in August last year, making the country’s humanitarian crisis even worse.
“The combined impact of years of conflict together with economic sanctions has really led to a serious hardship for the population that is already struggling,” Martin Schuepp, director of operations at the Red Cross, told The National during a visit to Afghanistan.
“Today many families are already struggling to put food on the table and as winter sets in it's even more difficult to buy heating, coal or wood.”
Mr Schuepp said the ICRC and other humanitarian groups did not have the capacity to meet the growing needs of the Afghan population.
The country is struggling to find access to funds and resources following months of economic hardship and access to health care remains a major concern.
"I visited some of the hospitals," Mr Schuepp said. "We really see the impact of the economic hardship, cases of pneumonia are spiking, malnutrition among children is increasing and families are struggling to support their children and get them adequate medical care."
The change in government has meant a sudden shift in international support towards Afghanistan, he said.
"Many actors have drawn away their support for essential services," Mr Schuepp said. "We have had to step in to ensure the medical system in hospitals can continue to function and not collapse meaning that there would be no more medical support for millions of Afghans."
The ICRC has stepped in to support 33 hospitals across the country and are paying the salaries of more than 10,500 medical staff every month to ensure basic healthcare services are available, he said.
With the support of the ICRC hospitals in the country have been able to treat two million patients. Between January and August, over 113,500 babies were safely delivered across maternity hospitals.
"It is essential for us that these services continue and do not crumble," he said.
"I've been called by medical staff today and told that if the ICRC had not stepped in, they would not know how to survive."
Political solutions to the crisis
Afghanistan's economic crisis has left millions in hunger, with limited access to health care and other basic needs.
The ICRC official said political decisions were necessary to set the wheels in motion for adequate humanitarian aid to reach those in need.
"Political solutions must be found so that other actors, such as development actors, can resume activities and support the medical and other sectors in order to provide basic services," Mr Schuepp said.
Once this is enabled, "humanitarian groups such as ours do not have to carry that burden and focus on other urgent and important tasks", he said.
The official said the ICRC was also feeding most the country's prisoners, with more than 80 per cent of Afghanistan's jail population receiving food provisions on a daily basis.
Mr Schuepp said; "We observe that prison services are often the first that are not receiving the necessary attention and are neglected."