Food security is still a problem in Iraq, a new survey released on Tuesday by the World Food Programme (WFP) revealed, stressing that some 25 percent of the population - 6.5 million people - are extremely poor and still totally dependent on the Public Distribution System (PDS).
"Most people are still dependant on the PDS food rations, but there are different levels of dependency," WFP regional spokeswoman Mia Turner told IRIN from the Jordanian capital, Amman. Job creation is essential in order to give households purchasing power needed to access sufficient food and to complement their diet with items not included in the PDS,the survey suggests. However, insecurity is hindering recovery of the economy and reconstruction efforts.
The survey highlights the need for analyzing carefully the means of guaranteeing food security for the most vulnerable in the context of a PDS reform. The study points out that a further 3.6 million Iraqis, 14 percent of the population, would become food insecure if the rationing system was discontinued. Under the PDS, every Iraqi receives a monthly ration including rice, salt, sugar, beans, tea, vegetable oil, cereal and infant formula.
Before the war started in March 2003, aid agencies were saying that 60 percent of the population was dependent on food aid. However, there was no real way of making an accurate assessment during Saddam Hussein's rule.
"This is the first comprehensive study of its kind in Iraq as the political environment before the war made it impossible to analyse the level of poverty and hunger in the country," Torben Due, Country Director for WFP's operations in Iraq, told IRIN. "For the first time, we are getting an accurate picture of people's access to food. As a result, we are much better able to plan assistance," he added.
The survey was carried out late last year and covered 28,500 households in 95 districts in 15 central and southern governorates, as well as the northern governorate of Sulaymaniyah. Staff from Iraq's Central Statistics Office in the Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation and the Nutrition Research Institute in the Ministry of Health collaborated in conducting the survey, with technical help from WFP.
"This survey is unique and one like this has not been done on this level in Iraq before. It provides a foundation for other surveys," Turner pointed out.
The baseline survey found that of the 6.5 million people totally dependant on the PDS, households often, sold some of their rations to buy other food items not included in the PDS, or buy other basic necessities such as medicine and clothes. The most vulnerable groups are said to be the unemployed, women and children in rural areas all over the southern and central
Even more worrying, the research showed that some 27 percent of all children up to the age of five were chronically malnourished and that this number would also increase dramatically without the PDS.
To help reduce malnutrition, the agency has already launched a one-year emergency operation costing US $60 million, targeting the most vulnerable groups in Iraq and malnourished children. "We are working together with the Iraqi government to create a supplementary feeding programme and a school feeding programme for their needs," Due said.
The operation will provide 67,000 mt of food to 220,000 malnourished children and their family members (over 1.1 million), more than 1.7 million primary school children, 350,000 pregnant and lactating mothers and over 6,000 tuberculosis patients.
However, WFP officials say money for this project is trickling in slowly despite the fact that it has already started, and are urging donors to fulfil their pledges as soon as possible.
The PDS is a monthly food ration entitlement established by the government of Iraq in the early 1990s in response to the UN sanctions imposed in 1996. In that year the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 986, which established the Oil-for-Food Programme (OFFP). It was a temporary measure that enabled the government of Iraq to sell oil in return for contracting and importing supplies and equipment needed to avert a humanitarian crisis.
Under the OFFP, WFP was mandated only to monitor the dispatch and distribution of the commodities in the central and southern parts of the country. The food agency also implemented, on behalf of the government, the food distribution for 3.7 million people in the three northern governorates.
However, with the closure of the programme late last year, the Iraqi Ministry of Trade took on these responsibilities for central and southern Iraq and the Kurdish authorities took on the job in the north.
At the request of the ministry, WFP agreed in 2004 to take on the role of transporting 1.6 million mt of commodities into the country. The dispatches will be completed next month. WFP also trained a number of ministry staff to build up their capacity in logistics, procurement, shipping and information and communications technology.
In early 2003 WFP launched its biggest ever emergency operation and delivered 2.1 million mt of food in the space of six months to prevent a major disaster as news emerged of the latest US led war to oust Saddam Hussein. "WFP will work with the World Bank and others to continue addressing food security issues in Iraq," Turner said, explaining the UN agency's role.