Child malnutrition: A silent drama is unfolding in Afghanistan

You arrive here at the gates of death. Like Safa. Only his dark, oversized, kohl-rimmed eyes are visible on his starved face. She has sagging, wrinkled skin. His ribs stand out and his stomach is taut. This emaciated creature is only six months old. His condition has been deteriorating for three monthssaid his grandmother since his mother died.

The Malnutrition Ward at Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar has 32 beds for the smallest and most emaciated patients. But the registration numbers are exploding. So you have to deal with the situation, says Mohammad Sadiq, the head of pediatric care.

It is estimated that 97% of Afghans now live below the poverty line and do not have enough to eat.Photo: Radio Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

“You see we have two patients in each bed. It’s terrible. But what can we do? We have no choice. »

In fact, there are often three small patients in several beds who vacillate between crying and breathing difficulties.

dr Mohammad Sadiq is the Director of Pediatric Care at Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan.Photo: Radio Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

The twins Hazeat Musa and Hazrat Esaa have been struggling to survive here for three weeks.

We have nothing to eat at home, we are poor. My husband no longer goes to workexplains her mother Zarghona.

She is estimated to be around 45 years old. She has lost nine children in the past. What did they die of? She is not sure. What she does know is that the four surviving children she left behind to come here from her village of Spin Boldak aren’t faring much better.

Zarghona is the mother of twins Hazeat Musa and Hazrat Esaa, who have been treated at Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar for the past three weeks.Photo: Radio Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

The children are sick, but we don’t have the means to treat themshe sighs.

Twins Hazeat Musa and Hazrat Esaa have been in Mirwais Hospital, Kandahar for three weeks.Photo: Radio Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

UNICEF speaks of a silent emergency. Malnutrition problems are not new in Afghanistan. But the latest numbers are alarming, the organization says.

From August to December 2021, a period that began with the Taliban’s return to power, the number of children admitted to Afghan hospitals doubled from 2,407 to 4,214.

The wasting rate, the condition of acute malnutrition that reduces infants to skin and bones at Mirwais Hospital, is nearly 10%.

According to doctor Mohammad Sadiq, ignorance is an aggravating factor in malnutrition. “Mothers do not know that they provide their children with the protein they need by eating peas or beans. »Photo: Radio Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

Poverty is one of the main causes of this situation. It is estimated that 97% of Afghans now live below the poverty line and do not have enough to eat.

But according to the director of pediatric care at Mirwais Hospital, ignorance is a pernicious aggravating factor.

Illiteracy is too high here. Mothers do not know that they provide their children with the protein they need by eating peas or beans. »

A quote from dr Mohammad Sadiq, Head of Pediatrics at Mirwais Hospital, Kandahar

Doctor Sadiq has worked in the children’s department for 17 years. It is one of the few health centers still operating after the collapse of Ashraf Ghani’s government. Elsewhere, health worker absenteeism is only increasing with demand. People don’t get paid anymore. It’s hard to follow up properly. All staff salaries at Kandahar’s largest hospital are paid by the International Red Cross.

dr Mohammad Sadiq, who works at Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar, is being inundated with requests for financial assistance and food aid from mothers and grandmothers accompanying patients.Photo: Radio Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

The man preparing for retirement is being showered with requests for money and food aid from the mothers and grandmothers accompanying the patients.

Hard to believe that little Sayera is four years old. But that’s exactly what his file suggests. It was her grandmother who took her for treatment. At home, his mother takes care of another child. She was only 12 years old, said the grandmother.

According to the UN, more than a million Afghan children could suffer from severe malnutrition this year.Photo: Radio Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

More than a million Afghan children could suffer from severe malnutrition this year, the UN warns. A catastrophic situation, exacerbated by a drought that Afghanistan has not experienced in almost three decades.

“If there was no drought and the weather was good, one tree would give 40 kilos of pomegranates. But we believe that this year it will be more like 10, 12 kilos per tree,” explains Zergaï.Photo: Radio Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

Amidst his grenadiers, Zergaï says he is very worried. The retired teacher and farmer sees his trees won’t be bounty this year.

kilos de grenades. Mais cette année, nous croyons que ce sera plutôt 10, 12kilos au plus pour chaque arbre.”,”text”:”Quand il n’y avait pas la sécheresse et que la météo était bonne, un arbre donnait 40kilos de grenades. Mais cette année, nous croyons que ce sera plutôt 10, 12kilos au plus pour chaque arbre.”}}”>If there was no drought and the weather was good, one tree would bear 40 kilos of pomegranates. But we think it will be more like 10, 12 kilos per tree this year.

Zergaï fears losing 70% of his income this year as inflation takes its toll. Whether it’s flour, oil or the petrol he needs to run his pump to irrigate his fields, everything goes to market. He has already borrowed to pay his employees’ salaries.

Zergaï fears losing 70% of his income this year.Photo: Radio Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

We will certainly get through the coming year with difficulty. And we fear that the prices of all the essentials will continue to rise. »

A quote from Zergaï, agricultural producer

Nematullah fears losing all of his work and that of his ancestors.Photo: Radio Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

In the nearby garden, Nematullah fears far longer-term consequences. The family land and all the work of his ancestors before him could be wiped out.

Nematullah’s father is sitting on the floor with his back against a concrete block.Photo: Radio Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

It takes 100 years of hard work to have a garden that bears good fruit. My ancestors worked very hard to plant these trees and tend this land.

Nematullah’s irrigation canals have been completely dry for months.Photo: Radio Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

Its irrigation canals have been completely dry for months. He has just under two weeks to save his trees, which he believes are slowly drying out.

Nematullah’s well is dry.Photo: Radio Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

It takes 10 days for the water from the dam to get here when it’s open. But if the dam doesn’t have enough water, we will have many problems. We cannot afford to dig wells to keep the trees from dying.

About 20,000 hectares of Kandahar Province in Afghanistan depend on the Dahla Dam, which was built in the 1950s.Photo: Radio Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

Around 20,000 hectares in Kandahar province depend on the Dahla Dam for irrigation. But the dam, built in the 1950s, is showing its age.

In 2008, Canada released $50 million to upgrade the dam’s main channel and 60 side channels. The project, controversial at the time, was intended to be a showcase of Canada’s presence in Kandahar. Abandoned in 2012 after mixed efforts, for farmers here it is but a reminder of a broken promise.

In 2008, Canada approved a US$50 million upgrade for the Dahla Dam main channel. However, this project was abandoned in 2012.Photo: Radio Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

Zergaï remembers very well the presence of Canadian soldiers here. He wishes they would come back to finally expand the capacity of the dam.

The Canadians promised to build it but didn’t do it. And we know that the previous government was corrupt. And then the Americans. But nobody worked.

With Nematullah, the fruits threaten to fall before they are ripe. He says he sees everything black, or almost.

With Nematullah, the fruits threaten to fall before they are ripe.Photo: Radio Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

“We’re afraid of losing our garden, but we’re not afraid of running out of food,” says Nematullah.Photo: Radio Canada / Marie-Eve Bédard

We’re afraid of losing our garden, but we’re not afraid of running out of food. Allah has promised to feed mankind.

At Mirwais Hospital, however, he seems just as powerless as the desperate mothers to still the incessant cries of pain from the most vulnerable Afghans.

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