Row upon row of sacks filling a vast warehouse in Kuwait City are beginning to symbolise another side of the ongoing war in Iraq. Thousands of 50-kg sacks of wheat flour lie on pallets stacked five metres high and extend more than 50 metres down the length of the dusty building.
More than 2,000 mt of flour are in this warehouse, with the same amount in another nearby. The flour, purchased by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), is destined for neighbouring Iraq, but is still stuck behind heavy metal doors an hour's drive away from the border.
Like many supplies and most aid workers, the wheat is still in Kuwait because of the continuing instability and insecurity in Iraq. The WFP public information officer in Kuwait, Antonia Paradela, told IRIN everything was in place for the wheat to be trucked to Iraq - except the security. "The clock is ticking. We're ready."
And despite some saying food is not an issue in Iraq at present, Paradela and others are warning that supplies need to be entering the country now in order to prevent a major catastrophe in several weeks when people's existing rations run out.
Paradela said most people in Iraq would have food until early May, but the situation beyond this was very uncertain. WFP is hoping to resurrect the food distribution system operated under the former UN-sanctioned Oil-for-Food Programme, which relied on 44,000 distribution agents spread throughout Iraq.
But this will require time and huge amounts of information-gathering about where aid is needed. Before the war, about 16 million Iraqis, 60 percent of the population, relied entirely on food rations under the programme. However, Paradela said the reality was that virtually every Iraqi family got some food from the programme before the war.
WFP predicts that its new food programme will represent the largest humanitarian effort in history, with four times as much food being required than was taken into Afghanistan after the conflict there. In all, 9,300 truckloads of food a month will need to be brought into Iraq to cope with the population's needs when their built-up stocks run out in a few weeks.
There were very few supplies of food left in Iraq from the old programme, Paradela said, and there were reports some warehouses had been looted, leaving nothing to distribute until WFP was able to get into the country. With such a huge job ahead, WFP was desperate to get into the south of the country, but was still waiting for it to be deemed safe. She said she hoped WFP would not have to resort to using the military to escort food convoys going into Iraq.
Meanwhile, the spokeswoman in Kuwait for aid agency Mercy Corps, Cassandra Nelson, told IRIN the food situation in Iraq was a ticking bomb. "We’re talking about feeding the [whole] country," she said.
Nelson went on to note that the period of the few weeks left before Iraqis’ food started running out was scarcely long enough to set up a system for feeding millions of people. "I mean, that’s not something you do overnight." She stressed that even if trucks loaded with food began rolling across the border today, it would be a challenge to set up the distribution system throughout Iraqi communities in time.
While people were not starving today, "there will be a massive, massive human catastrophe on our hands if we don’t get in there," she said. She also urged the international community to respond to WFP’s appeal for funding the new food programme, saying despite there being no TV images of starving people being beamed across the world, there was definitely a need - "and the need is now".
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