With widespread reports of looting in the Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Basra following the arrival of coalition forces, UN agencies have expressed concern over decreased capacity to resume the vital lifeline of the UN sanctioned Oil-for-Food Programme (OFFP), suspended since the outbreak of hostilities on 20 March.
This week, UN agencies warned that looting and the breakdown of law and order in Iraq could contribute to a humanitarian crisis as their operations were obstructed, and called on the occupying military forces to provide the necessary security for relief efforts to function properly.
"The longer the situation remains out of control, the more difficult it will be to start humanitarian relief operations and the greater the delay in beginning the work of reconstruction," David Wimhurst, a spokesman for the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, told a news conference in the Jordanian capital, Amman, on Wednesday. "The operating environment for humanitarian assistance requires secure access to populations in need. That environment does not yet exist, except in Umm Qasr and from Turkey, in the north."
Maarten Roest, a spokesman for the World Food Programme (WFP), shared Wimhurst's concerns. "We need to operate in a safe environment in order to deliver food successfully. Unless law and order prevail, it would be extremely difficult to guarantee the required food aid - 480,000 mt - reaches the people," he told the news conference, citing reports of looting of Iraqi government warehouses in Basra, "the very warehouses which WFP is aiming to replenish for the May distribution. Under such circumstances, this does not seem possible," he warned.
Other than the three semi-autonomous northern governorates of Dahuk, Sulaymaniyah and Arbil, where aid agencies have had greater access despite the conflict, assembling a clear picture of the situation in the 15 southern and central governorates, to which the UN has yet to gain access, is a task that remains very hard to accomplish.
"We simply do not know what has happened to the [OFFP] system," a Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) spokesman, Barry Came, told IRIN in the Jordanian capital, Amman, on Thursday. "Our first priority will be to assess the system as soon as we can get back into Iraq and move around the country."
FAO is one of nine UN agencies involved in the monitoring of the OFFP, the others being the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), WFP, the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), UN-Habitat and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
Under the OFFP, some 480,000 mt of food commodities were distributed every month to the entire Iraqi population through the Public Distribution System (PDS). In the central and southern governorates, the Iraqi Ministry of Trade was responsible for the distribution process, while WFP was mandated to implement distribution in the north.
The actual distribution of the food ration was handled by a country-wide network of 44,000 food and flour agents - 11,000 in the three northern governorates and 33,000 in the centre/south.
The system was well established, efficient and the primary source of basic food commodities for the population, and WFP is hoping that the greater proportion of the network will remain in place upon conclusion of the war. "We want to use the existing PDS that has been operated effectively by the Iraqis themselves," said Roest. "We see no need to reinvent the wheel."
WFP has cautioned that the crucial importance of the PDS for the food security of the entire Iraqi population "cannot be overstated", particularly in light of the fact that other coping mechanisms for the primarily urban population have been heavily eroded by the economic impact of years of international sanctions. WFP has warned that "any significant disruption of the PDS would have dramatic humanitarian consequences for the Iraqi population within a very brief period".
However, as Roest notes, it is "impossible to tell at this point" what the state of the PDS might be, particularly in the 15 southern and central governorates. Extensive assessment not only of infrastructure (roads, mills and warehouses), but of human capacity as well (distribution agents may have been displaced, injured or killed - or, if associated with Saddam Husayn's Ba'th Party, fled), will have to be conducted as soon as security conditions permit. For an interim period, at least, NGOs in partnership with WFP may need to boost capacity and bridge any gaps.
Meanwhile, FAO's Came said he was confident that UN agencies and their NGOs partners could step in to handle the OFFP during a transitional period until a new national government authority was established.
As for when this access might come, Wimhurst replied that "that is a $64,000 question for everybody, because we need to have secure access and we don't know when that secure access will be made available. We are not on the ground and in control; we are waiting to see how soon we can have access. We only have access to Umm Qasr in the south and we are looking at moving
further up north and doing assessments up to perhaps Basra, but further north than that, it is impossible to say."
Fighting has disrupted the food supply in Iraq, where 60 percent of its 27.1 million people were dependent on the UN-monitored, Iraqi government-implemented Oil-for-Food Programme (OFFP), which allowed proceeds from Iraq's oil sales to be used to buy food. To avert disaster, WFP has launched an emergency appeal for US $1.3 billion to bridge any gaps that might arise from the several-week period of stoppage of the OFFP, for which the UN Security Council on 28 March adopted a new resolution, giving Secretary-General Kofi Annan authority to administer the programme for the next 45 days.
FAO also expressed concern about the approaching harvest, due to begin in two weeks. Some 1.7 million mt of grain - wheat and barley, primarily - is to be harvested, which requires about 5,000 trucks to transport. "Planting of a spring crop should currently be under way, but we are not sure if farmers have been planting," Came said.
Noting that Iraq has a highly irrigated system of agriculture - 70 percent (equivalent to 5.2 million ha) of Iraq's arable land is dependent on irrigation, Came said FAO had no information regarding what, if any, damage had been done to the system.
Came also noted that if vaccines and feed for livestock and poultry could not be delivered to farmers, one of the few sources of protein for Iraqis could be jeopardised.
In its most recent weekly report, the UN office of the Iraq programme (OIP) warned that an ongoing review of the OFFP pipeline had confirmed that only a modest portion of the supplies in it was likely to be shipped in time to meet emergency requirements in Iraq.
"Most of the approved contracts are for everyday 'peacetime' needs," the report said. "Absent are urgently needed items for refugees, health and nutrition, shelter, education and landmine protection."
The report also warned that it remained unclear whether the mix of foods in the pipeline would match the required quantities and types of commodities that make up the monthly 'basket' of food rations distributed through the OFFP. For example, missing from the pipeline are such items as high-protein biscuits and therapeutic milk needed to address malnutrition, and water purification supplies.
UN agencies and organisations currently working under OFFP contracts cautioned that perishable food commodities requiring staggered deliveries would fall outside the scope of the 45-day shipping limit imposed by the Security Council.
WFP is careful to note that, to the degree that the OFFP could be reactivated, the appeal for its emergency operation would be accordingly modified downwards. WFP has so far only identified about $110 million worth of food supplies in existing contracts under the OFFP operation that could be shipped within the next 45 days.
"As only goods on the high seas or in port warehouses can be shipped by the 12 May deadline, donor contributions are urgently needed to fill the gap," WFP Emergency Officer Philip Ward told IRIN in New York.
According to WFP, yet another limitation on rapid deliveries under the programme was the fact that commercial shipping to Iraq slowed noticeably in the weeks prior to the war, and reactivation of the delivery chain could take some time.
However, on a more optimistic note, the OIP also reported that it had identified four new locations for the delivery and transshipment of emergency food and other items to Iraq once security conditions allowed. The new locations, with more expected to follow, are the Mediterranean seaports of Latakia (Syria), Iskenderun (Turkey), the Jordanian port of Aqaba on the Red Sea and the Gulf port at Kuwait City. Each offers the advantages of bulk- handling facilities, warehousing for supplies and good road links with Iraq.
The Security Council established the OFFP on 14 April 1995. Some 3.4 billion barrels of Iraqi oil valued at about $64 billion have been exported under the programme since December 1996. Of this amount, 72 percent of the total has been allocated towards humanitarian needs nationwide since December 2000. The balance goes to: Gulf War reparations through a compensation fund (25 percent since December 2000); UN administrative and operational costs for the programme (2.2 percent) and costs for the weapons inspection programme (0.8 percent).
[For more information, go to www.un.org/Depts/oip/index.html]
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions