War is Not Over
The Humanitarian Crisis in Iraq
by Milan Rai
April 14, 2003
The war continues to pose a threat to the lives of ordinary people in Iraq. Before the war started, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated "In the event of a crisis, 30 percent of children under 5 would be at risk of death from malnutrition". (See leaked draft report of 7 Jan., www.casi.org.uk) Bush and Blair started the war knowing that it could lead to up to 1.26 million children starving to death. The threat came from the disruption of the monthly 'oil-for-food' humanitarian distribution system and the destruction or disruption of essential public services (electricity and drinking water supplies) which could lead to malnutrition and death, especially for young children. These continue to be grave problems in Iraq.
UNICEF spokesperson Wivina Belmonte warned on 7 Apr., "With each passing day, as the conflict continues, a humanitarian clock is ticking - it's a question of access, it's a question of distribution, it's a question of time, and it's a question of the lives of Iraqi children.' On 9 Apr., UNICEF Representative Carol de Rooy said, "Before this conflict took place, UNICEF had networks and systems inside Iraq that helped us achieve our life-saving vaccination campaigns, nutrition campaigns and work in education, What is horribly worrying about the looting, chaos and breakdown of order is that those systems we counted on may completely disappear or collapse."
The UN World Food Programme says that it is about to undertake the biggest operation in its history, providing food for up to 27 million people - the entire Iraqi population - for a period of four months. "However, we need to operate in a safe environment in order to deliver food successfully," spokesperson Maarten Roest said on 9 Apr. "Unless law and order prevail, it would be extremely difficult to guarantee the required food aid - 480,000 tons - reach the people." Referring to the reported looting of warehouses in Basra - "the very warehouses which WFP is aiming to replenish for the May distribution" - he said that WFP operations did not seem possible under such circumstances.
UNICEF said on 10 Apr. that while reports of continued chaos in Baghdad were seriously worrying and UNICEF's own offices had been looted yesterday - phones, chairs, essentially everything was taken away - the most alarming information was the dramatic increase in diarrhoea in children during the past five days. Doctors at the hospital in the southern port of Um Qasr reported a staggering increase directly related to the lack of clean water, with 50 cases for the first five days of April compared with 30 for the whole month last year, spokesperson Wivina Belmonte said. Based on what the doctors had seen, they concluded that malnutrition rates are likely to increase sharply by the end of the month all over southern Iraq due to the water situation. These are precisely the conditions that could lead to the deaths of large numbers of young children through malnutrition and disease.
Save the Children UK warned on 4 Sept. 2002, that 'Three things resulting directly from military action will dangerously undermine the livelihoods and the very survival of Iraqi civilians': 'First, supplies of humanitarian goods imported under the UN Oil-for-Food programme (OFF) will be interrupted. Neighbouring states may close their borders, UN agency, international and local aid staff will evacuate their posts, and local authorities may obstruct or be unable to deliver supplies to the needy.
There continue to be problems with the distribution of humanitarian goods such as food and medicine. The UN has carried out a review of 'Oil-for-Food' goods on their way to Iraq, and has 'confirmed that only a modest portion of the supplies is likely to be shipped in time to meet emergency requirements in Iraq.' Urgently needed items for refugees, heath and nutrition, shelter, education and landmine protection are missing from these orders. Also missing are such items as high protein biscuits and therapeutic milk needed to address malnutrition, and water purification supplies. Another limitation on rapid deliveries is the fact that commercial shipping to Iraq slowed noticeably in the run-up to the war and 'reactivation of the delivery chain could take some time'. (www.un.org/Depts/oip, Weekly Update 29 Mar.-4 Apr.)
As in Afghanistan, the level of disorder and conflict means that it is dangerous for international aid agency staff to enter Iraq to carry out humanitarian work. On 9 Apr., the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has operated without problems until now, suspended its humanitarian relief operations in Baghdad after two of its vehicles were hit by gunfire, leaving a Canadian staff member dead. The ICRC said, 'Given the chaotic and totally unpredictable situation in the city, getting from one place to another involves incalculable risks.' (FT, 10 Apr., p. 4)
US Lieutenant Colonel Brian McCoy said on 10 Apr. that he was not bothered by the looting of ministries or the homes of Iraqi leaders. "What we must protect is the civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals, power stations and water plants, he said. But when the al-Kindi hospital, one of Baghdad's key medical facilities, was attacked by armed looters, US troops failed to intervene, saying they had no orders to do so. "The coalition forces seem to be completely unable to restrain looters or impose any sort of control on the mobs that now govern the streets," said Veronique Taveau, spokeswoman for the UN Office of the Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Iraq (UNOHCI). "This inaction by the occupying powers is in violation of the Geneva Conventions." (BBC News Online, 'Instability plagues Baghdad’, 11 Apr.).
Save the Children UK also warned last Sept. that 'armed conflict is likely to encompass centres of high population density and affect key aspects of their infrastructure. Power cuts and closure of transport routes leading to public health hazards can endanger the lives of large number of Iraqis in the medium term.' Continuing disruption of electricity supplies paralyses the drinking water supply and forces the population to rely on unsafe water, leading to waterborne diseases, to which children are particularly vulnerable.
Save the Children UK also warned that 'a breakdown in communications and logistics in the Iraqi civil administration will leave civilians without access to centrally warehoused supplies and hamper distribution.' There seems at the moment to be a total breakdown in communications and logistics in the Iraqi civil administration, and this poses real risks to the general population.
The people of Iraq - and especially the children of Iraq - are in grave danger because of the damage and disruption caused by the war. 'Liberation' could actually be a disaster unless there is proper humanitarian aid, a safe environment, and a speedy restoration of civil administration.
Milan Rai is author of War Plan Iraq: Ten Reasons Against War (Verso, 2002) and a member of Active Resistance to the Roots of War (ARROW). He is also co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness UK, which has worked for the lifting of UN sanctions in Iraq.