Humanitarian crisis deepens in Iraq

With the threat of a humanitarian crisis growing daily, international aid agencies have called upon U.S. armed forces to take urgent measures to help the Iraqi people obtain water and other aid necessary for survival.

The situation is especially grim in Basra where, the United Nations warns, fewer than half the city, home to 1.5 million people, is receiving clean water and there is no power. The UN says 100,000 children are at risk of disease because fighting in southern Iraq has disrupted supplies of drinking water.

On March 24, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said “urgent measures should be taken to restore electricity and water to that population. A city of that size cannot afford to go without electricity or water for long. Apart from the water aspect, you can imagine what it does for sanitation.”

Nada Doumani, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, echoed Annan, calling the situation an “emergency.” Adequate drinking water is vital for the local population because daytime temperatures can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

“If we do not manage to re-establish the water system in Basra very rapidly, we will have a major humanitarian crisis,” said Balthasar Staehelin, the International Red Cross director general for the Middle East and North Africa.

One of the greatest killers of people thrown into chaos and flight is the lack of clean water and sanitation. Children, expectant mothers, and old people are especially vulnerable to diarrhea and water-borne diseases.

In a statement released from UN headquarters on March 25, Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF, said her agency was working to get vital water tankers into Basra. “Electricity has been knocked out, interrupting the water supply, and that puts people at risk of disease from unsafe water,” Bellamy warned.

Bellamy emphasized that this is exactly the scenario UNICEF had warned of prior to the war. She added that in the weeks prior to the conflict, UNICEF made sure that backup generators were working at 73 facilities in Baghdad so that water would still be available even if electricity were lost.

“We’re very concerned about reports of deaths and injuries among children and women,” Bellamy said. “But the truth is the world does not have a very clear picture of the humanitarian impact of the fighting. There is a disturbing lack of focus on the civilian population.”

Before the U.S. invasion Umm Qasr, Iraq’s only port on the Persian Gulf, received 60 percent of the supplies distributed in Iraq under the oil-for-food program. Since United Nations-imposed sanctions were put in place after the first Persian Gulf war, about 16 million people in Iraq rely almost solely on the rations they receive from the program.

Oxfam International, a confederation of 12 organizations working together in more than 100 countries to find lasting solutions to poverty, suffering and injustice, has been working with UN agencies in anticipation of large numbers of Iraqi refugees – already estimated to exceed 450,000 people – as the war goes on.

A refugee camp for 10,000 in Jordan built with Oxfam help is up and running. Work in Syria has been stepped up with one camp in al-Hol prepared with Oxfam involvement. The Syrian government has also agreed with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to a further three camps.

The United Nations is planning for influxes of up to 100,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria, up to 1 million in Iran and up to 50,000 in Jordan.

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