Humanitarian effort dismissed as a disaster

by Anthony Browne (The Times, London 7 April 2003)

Many Iraqis have complained that they are far worse off now than they were before the war.

Doctors are so short of drugs and surgical equipment that they cannot treat patients and some families in the south have had nothing to eat but tomatoes for two weeks. Large parts of Basra and Baghdad have no water because power cuts have shut down the water-supply system.

Aid agencies had stockpiled supplies in surrounding countries and in the past few days they have started sending convoys of lorries to parts of the country they consider safe enough. Their supplies are in additional to the military humanitarian effort, but they say that the supplies are still far too few to meet the need and that much of the country is too dangerous to operate in.

The World Food Programme said that the country had only enough food to last until the end of the month and the oil-for-food programme, which fed Iraq before the war, was not yet operating again.

Red Cross lorries loaded with medical supplies have got into Basra and Baghdad, and Unicef lorries carrying water and health kits have got into al-Zubayr and Safwan. The World Food Programme delivered 1,000 tonnes of wheat flour to northern Iraq from Turkey yesterday, and Unicef lorries carrying health kits will set off tomorrow for al-Nasiriyah.

None of this is enough our drivers are coming back with long lists from doctors of what they need. Its a good beginning, but its only a beginning, Wivina Belmonte, a spokeswoman for Unicef, said.

Even in Umm Qasr, which has been under British control for two weeks, conditions remain dire. People are desperately short of water, with children begging for it in the streets, and a tanker of water was actually sent from Basra, despite that city still being an active war zone.

The Roman Catholic aid charity Cafod, which has visited Umm Qasr for the past three days, said that the humanitarian effort had been a shambles. Humanitarian need has not been met in certain areas in certain parts people still have no water and in others they have nothing to eat but tomatoes. But Umm Qasr has only 40,000 people and its been in coalition hands for two weeks it bodes badly for Basra and Baghdad, Patrick Nicholson, a Cafod official, said.

The Red Cross has installed six electricity generators in Basra, helping to restore water supplies to 60 per cent of the population. It has also installed generators to keep the water supply going in Baghdad.

However, the main problem is lack of medical supplies for hospitals, struggling to cope with a vast number of casualties. The hospitals in Baghdad are having great difficulty keeping up with patients they are receiving hundreds of patients an hour, a Red Cross spokesman said.

Before the war, 60 per cent of Iraqis were totally dependent on the oil-for-food programme, which was suspended at the start of hostilities. The UN Security Council voted on March 28 to restart it, but, although the programme is officially working, it has not yet sent any food to Iraq.

Aid agencies also gave warning that the push by British troops into the heart of Basra would not guarantee that it would be easier to distribute aid there. The British Red Cross said: What governs it is the security situation and whether it is safe for our staff to operate. It doesnt matter really if one side is in control, it could still be dangerous.

A spokeswoman for Oxfam also said that its workers would not be entering the city because it was still considered too dangerous. She added: Theres a humanitarian imperative and we want to go in as soon as we can. We have all seen the chaotic delivery of aid over the past few weeks and thats something we are concerned about.

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