An initial assessment of the food, water, and health situation in the southern Iraqi port town of Umm Qasr by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), has reported the population to be "protein-starved". It is the first humanitarian needs assessment to emerge from Umm Qasr, with information on security, food, water, health, protection, electricity and schools.
It also stated that the town's 24 port silos had been swept for mines and were reportedly safe - important for the importation of food, fresh water and medical supplies for southern Iraq. The study was carried out by USAID's Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) - a group of 60 humanitarian experts helping USAID to rapidly respond to needs in southern Iraq.
Other than concerns over protein deficiency among the town's population of 40,00, the report said coalition forces and local residents had reported that food was "not an urgent need at this time", with households having sufficient staple commodities such as flour and rice to last six months - despite the frenzy that accompanied food distributions in the nearby town of Safwan on 26 March.
Reacting to the report, some NGOs contacted by IRIN said it contained valuable information that would help them gain a preliminary idea of the situation on the ground. "We welcome the opportunity for more information, but sanitation is not mentioned, nor are the needs and availability of water," Nigel Young, Oxfam's programme coordinator for Jordan and Syria, told IRIN on Tuesday. "But we do appreciate that it was obviously a very rapid assessment, and we welcome access to information like this."
The report quoted coalition forces as indicating that they would not be re-establishing the public distribution system that had existed under the Oil-for-Food Programme. Instead, they would organise a community-based distribution process, involving one community representative from each of Umm Qasr's 85 neighbourhoods, who would collect and distribute food in their areas.
With regard to the health sector, the report said that although a preliminary assessment of the hospital in Umm Qasr had revealed pharmaceutical stocks sufficient three months - with the exception of medicines for certain chronic care diseases - the hospital administrator "seemed to be caught between the need to reinforce the regime's assertion that three month's medical stores had been provided, and the desire to put together a list of the hospital's needs".
For water, the report said the coalition forces, which have supplied water to residents in recent days, "appeared willing to continue water distributions until the pipeline was turned on, but welcomed the possibility of tankers organised by UNICEF [UN Children's Fund] taking over until the water pipeline comes on line".
On the subject of security, the report said that although the atmosphere in Umm Qasr was "marked by wariness", the coalition forces reported that trust was "improving daily". "However, it is obvious that the community, with the events of 1991 clear in memory, is waiting for proof that the regime is, in fact, finished," it stated.
The assessment team added that although it had been "repeatedly assured by coalition forces that security in Umm Qasr was under control and a humanitarian presence was welcomed by the military", at present there were no means to coordinate humanitarian assistance from Kuwait City at the Kuwait-Iraq border. "This issue needs to be addressed immediately," said the report.
NGOs, however, say the report presents an incomplete picture of the situation on the ground. The assessment, conducted on 27 March, noted that the team "had little access to the local population, and most of the information contained in this report came from discussions with coalition forces based in Umm Qasr".
Asked to what degree DART had collaborated with other agencies in humanitarian assessment efforts, George Havens, the deputy team leader for DART, replied: "As is always the case, we involve ourselves at the sectoral level. We also meet regularly with NGOs, IOs [international organisations], and the UN to make sure we're all moving in the same direction and getting the largest impact we can with the finite resources that everybody brings to the table."
However, a number of NGOs were concerned about the report's heavy reliance on non-humanitarian information sources. "They refer too much to the coalition and not to local populations, to which they had little access," said Andrea Bodea, the coordinator for the French NGO Premiere Urgence. "If you can't hold discussions with local populations, I don't know how reliable the information can be."
Bodea was also critical of the widely televised coalition food distributions that had resulted in frenzied mobs. "This is what happens when you just throw packages in the middle of the city," she stated, adding that such work was better left to humanitarian organisations with extensive experience in the techniques and principles of food distribution.
Noting that not all parts of the town were accessible due to security concerns, Havens noted that one six-member team had visited the main hospital for 45 minutes, while another team of four had spent about four hours at the port and had also driven around the town briefly to observe the situation.
"We're reliant upon a broad brush-stroke view of the situation due to insecurity," said Havens. However, he noted that DART would conduct further assessments as security conditions allowed, without being escorted by coalition forces. "Coalition forces are an important asset early on, as DART and the UN are unable to go to certain areas due to insecurity," Havens said.
He was also insistent upon the distinction between DART and coalition forces. "DART is not military, we're strictly humanitarian and that's the way we'll operate when security permits."