Aid agencies in Iraq struggle to prepare for war

People more vulnerable than in 1991, officials say

February 02, 2003|By THE BOSTON GLOBE

BAGHDAD - United Nations agencies and relief groups here are stockpiling fuel, food and medical supplies in anticipation of a U.S.-led attack that they say would be a humanitarian catastrophe for Iraqis already vulnerable to famine and disease after years of U.N. sanctions.

Aid workers also are preparing to help the tens of thousands of Iraqis expected to flee Baghdad and other major cities if there is an intensive bombing campaign.

Iran, Turkey, Jordan, and Kuwait are expected to try to prevent refugees from crossing into their territory, so Iraq's displaced could be left at the borders without food or shelter.

Thousands of medical kits, which include antibiotics, syringes, surgical tools and gauze, have been ordered to help doctors here aid the wounded. Dozens of rubber containers capable of holding about 1,600 gallons of water each have been purchased, in case water treatment facilities fail.

Generators, kerosene, blankets and critical nonfood items are being stockpiled. Aid workers are also storing fuel, anticipating gas shortages; some have ordered bicycles. Hygienic kits are on order for tens of thousands, with everything from soap to shampoo.

But relief workers caution that their preparations are inadequate for the overwhelming need they anticipate. "We are already in a humanitarian crisis," said Margaret Hassan, Iraq director for CARE, an American relief organization. "Frankly, these people can't take on another one."

The efforts of aid workers here are further impeded by money and manpower constraints. Most groups raise money from major donors once a crisis is under way - not beforehand.

While the U.N. agencies have a major presence here, with hundreds of workers, U.N. staff might be withdrawn in the event of war. That would leave relief work to the nine private groups, many of whose staffs say they intend to stay throughout any such military strike.

The concerns of aid groups in Iraq echo conclusions reached by U.N. planners, who predicted in a confidential report last month that a war and its aftermath could injure more than 500,000 civilians and create nearly 1 million refugees.

The report, posted on the Web site of a British group that opposes U.N. sanctions, also predicted that war would result in severe hunger for about 3 million of Iraq's 23 million people and that 900,000 Iraqi refugees would eventually need assistance.

It said disease spread will be "epidemic, if not pandemic."

An independent report by British and U.S. specialists released last week concluded that war would gravely imperil the country's 13 million children, with at least 500,000 already malnourished or underweight.

The 12 years of U.N. sanctions, aid workers here say, have left Iraq more vulnerable than before the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Then, despite the challenges of recovering from the just-ended war with Iran, Iraq faced a U.S. bombing campaign with its infrastructure largely intact and its citizens in overall good health.

A pressing health concern then was childhood obesity.

Now, as Iraq faces a second U.S.-led attack, its infrastructure is rickety, few have savings and Iraqis are suffering from high rates of disease and malnutrition. Between 1989 and 1999, the mortality rate for children soared by 50 percent, according to the United Nations.

"Iraq was not a Third World country in 1990," Denis Halliday, a former U.N. assistant secretary-general who quit over U.N. sanctions, said in an interview when he visited Iraq recently. "Now, you have this vulnerability out there."

Recent U.N. statistics say that 49 percent of families still do not earn enough money to meet their basic needs. Twenty-four percent of children were chronically malnourished last year. On top of that, electricity has yet to return to 1990 capacity, public hospitals have antiquated equipment and drug shortfalls, and drinking water is "insufficient in both quantity and quality," according to a report that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan delivered to the Security Council in November.

"We really have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario," said Guiseppe Renda, deputy head of the International Committee for the Red Cross delegation in Baghdad. "The situation can only be much worse than it was before."

Access to food is what worries aid workers the most in the event of war. Now, 60 percent of the Iraqi population is entirely dependent on a "food basket" distributed by the Iraqi government, funded through the sale of Iraqi oil under the U.N. oil-for-food program.

The Iraqi regime recently made double rations available of the key items, which include tea, oil and sugar, so that families can stockpile them in the event of war. But most families sell their rations for needed cash.

"The majority of the population depends on the government for food handouts - this makes them much, much more vulnerable," said Carel de Rooy, UNICEF's representative for Iraq.

Other aid groups worry that war would devastate the country's already deteriorating electrical grid. Millions of dollars in foreign aid have been invested in rebuilding power plants after the last bombing campaign. But there still isn't adequate power for hospitals to run air conditioners or for families to keep their lights on.

Drinkable water is in short supply. Even with backup generators working, relief specialists say, supplies of clean water will quickly run out.

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