With the arrival in northern Iraq last week of the first major convoy of World Food Programme (WFP) food aid from Turkey, there began what promises to be the largest emergency operation ever undertaken by the UN agency. "A further 55 trucks loaded with wheat flour are on the road to [the northern city of] Dohuk
and will travel to [the city of] Erbil under armed escort tomorrow," Heather Hill, a WFP spokesperson, told IRIN on Tuesday.
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.
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 already identified about $110 million of a potential $1 billion worth of food supplies in existing contracts under the OFFP operation that could be shipped within the next 45 days.
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 15 central and southern governorates, the Iraqi trade ministry was responsible for the distribution process, while WFP was mandated to implement distribution in the three northern governorates. 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 part 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 WFP spokesman Martin 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 Hussein's Baath 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.
With some 2.1 million people expected to require emergency assistance within the next three weeks, WFP says it has already pre-positioned sufficient supplies in countries surrounding Iraq – about 29,000 mt at a total cost of US $16 million - to feed two million people for one month.
In Jordan, warehouses on the outskirts of the capital, Amman, are housing 3,000 mt of wheat, 2,700 mt of rice, 360 mt of chickpeas, 140 mt of cooking oil, and 20 mt of high-energy biscuits. To reach any densely-populated area in Iraq, however, the supplies would have to be trucked 350 km from Amman to the Karamah border crossing, and then traverse a 660-km desert highway linking Jordan and Iraq.
However, given the high port off-take and trucking capacity it offers, Jordan would most likely become the largest main supply route for Iraq. Arrangements have already been made with port authorities in Aqaba [Al-Aqabah], located 328 km south of Amman, to discharge up to three vessels simultaneously, and contracts are currently being concluded with Jordanian transporters. Total capacity through the Jordan corridor is estimated at 300,000 mt per month.
WFP’s plan for Syria is based on the assumption that 54,000 mt of food aid per month could transit through Syria to Iraq from the ports of entry of Tartus and Latakia in Syria, and possibly Beirut in Lebanon. There are three direct routes from Syria to Iraq that are accessible with heavy capacity trucks: via the Al-Tanf, Abu Kamal and Yarubiyah border crossings, and
arrangements have been made to use a warehouse at Latakia port with a capacity of 1,500 mt, and one at El-Hol [Al-Hawl] with a 400 mt capacity.
Turkey would also be a major corridor for deliveries to northern Iraq, and transporters have been lined up to work out of a number of different ports, including Iskenderun and Mersin, for a throughput of up to 100,000 mt per month.
In Iran, over 2,800 mt of food supplies have been pre-positioned, while negotiations for the purchase of an additional 17,000 mt are currently under way. The goods are stored in warehouses in two locations: in the southwestern town of Ahvaz, to serve southern and central Iraq, and
in the western town of Kermanshah, to serve central and northern Iraq.
In Kuwait, 4,000 mt of wheat flour and 160 mt of high-energy biscuits in Kuwait City are in place, with more food en route.
As for Iraq itself, although Umm Qasr was the entry point of about 60 percent of goods under the OFFP, the situation is highly unpredictable, as the port can only accommodate ships carrying no more than 10,000 mt of cargo, due to heavy siltation.
WFP will coordinate transport activities through the UN Joint Logistics Centre, which will also act as an interlocutor with coalition authorities to ensure security of air and surface movements and the separation of military and humanitarian activities.
These figures, however, only cover a preliminary phase, during which time WFP would be called upon to assist refugees and conduct cross-border operations to help the malnourished and vulnerable inside Iraq.
Although most people were receiving additional rations from the Iraqi government through the OFFP in the months preceding the war, these were not always complete, and some families sold off their reserves to pay for non-food needs. WFP believes that the poorest Iraqis' food reserves will run out by May.
The second phase of the operation could constitute what WFP spokesman Khaled Mansour has called "the largest humanitarian operation in history": supplying 27.1 million people – including some 1.3 million refugees, 2.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), and 700,000 people belonging to vulnerable groups (such as pregnant and nursing mothers and malnourished children) - with 480,000 mt of food per month. Expected to begin by the end of April/start of May and last for a period of three months, it seeks to rehabilitate the PDS and supply it with food until such time as the OFFP becomes fully operational again.
As a point of comparison, one of WFP’s most recent large-scale operations took place in Afghanistan in December 2001, when 120,000 mt of food was provided over the month.
Given the unpredictability of the conflict and impossibility of knowing which areas, at any given stage of the operation, would be rendered inaccessible, WFP’s regional logistics strategy is focused on the diversification of corridors, routes and modalities and a high degree of flexibility to switch among them at short notice.
"It must be a highly flexible plan, because, obviously, we face a war situation where we have tried to take into account a host of uncertainties for a situation that is still unfolding," said Roest. He noted that although WFP had not received indications to date of food shortages in the country, the agency needed to maintain momentum to be able react when shortages arise.
"Food shortages may occur sooner than the OFFP is back up and running," said Roest, warning that the logistics of moving such large quantities of food was a matter of weeks, not just days.
However, arrangements for large-scale convoys are not yet possible, at least to the southern and central regions of Iraq, although planning is under way. The primary issue remains that of security, not distance, and until this can be assured, supplies will remain sporadic.
A third and final phase, lasting two months, assumes that the food pipeline, including its funding, and the PDS would be re-established, thereby allowing WFP to focus its assistance on an anticipated 4.9 million beneficiaries monthly, including 1.3 million refugees, 2.8 million IDPs, and 700,000 people belonging to vulnerable groups. However, should this assumption not be realised, WFP would extend its Phase II responsibilities as necessary.
Ultimately, an estimated 1,609,500 mt of food commodities would be moved into Iraq over a six-month period.
Paying for all this, however, is a growing source of concern for WFP.
Addressing a news conference at UN headquarters in New York on Monday, WFP Executive Director James T. Morris warned that despite a good initial response by the international community to the agency's $1.3 billion emergency food aid appeal for Iraq, a massive shortfall remained, and more funds were desperately needed.
"We are happy with our progress so far, but we still have a long way to go and we cannot afford to lose time," Morris said.
Last week, WFP received $260 million from the United States, as well as contributions from the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Canada, Spain, New Zealand and Italy. Total donor funding has to date reached $290 million. But with WFP estimates of about a month's food stocks remaining for the average Iraqi family and only $110 million of applicable food aid contracts so far identified under the OFFP, the onus remains on individual donors to fill the gap.
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