United Nations international staff are expected to be back working in southern Iraq very shortly, according to a senior humanitarian official. Speaking outside Basra International Airport, where he was due to discuss safety and logistical concerns, Kevin Kennedy, the UN deputy humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said it was important for the UN to establish a presence in the south of the war-torn country.
While international staff began returning to three of the northern governorates on Wednesday, security concerns have so far prevented the return of UN staff to the south other than on security assessment missions, while actual distribution of aid has been similarly limited. The UN team accompanying Kennedy for the day trip into Iraq from Kuwait had been given clearance just for that day and area.
Kennedy said it had been frustrating to have such a limited presence, but some delivery work had already been undertaken from neighbouring countries - action which he hoped to promote and accelerate. He stressed, however, that having a UN presence was inadequate in itself, and that the main immediate concern was delivering assistance.
Reviving a food-distribution system was essential, he said, and even though the current situation had not yet reached a critical stage, the UN would have to move very quickly. Before the war, at least 60 percent of Iraq's population had relied on food rations from the UN Oil-for-Food Programme, and that distribution system would have to be resurrected before people's existing stores of food ran out in about a month's time.
Moreover, ensuring that water and sanitation systems were up and running again, as well as replenishing and reinforcing the heath system was vital, Kennedy said. "It's a huge task and requires a lot of people."
However, he was confident that by working with aid organisations and Iraqis, the UN could accomplish its task. He also believed the required money to fund the programmes would come from the international community. The World Food Programme, World Health Organisation and the UN Children's Fund were already making headway, and there were stockpiles of supplies in the region.
The UN's area coordinator for southern Iraq, Kim Bolduc, emphasised there was a huge job ahead. "I think this is a very big task, and NGOs alone can't cover the magnitude of it, and the United Nations is needed back here," she said.
Before the war, the UN presence in southern Iraq had been limited, so establishing a base was important. However, she said, the UN had the resources and skills to provide for humanitarian needs, as well as being able to utilise the local networks of trained people.
In An-Nasiriyah for example, 200 food agents who used to distribute food rations before the war had contacted the UN saying they were willing to resume work when supplies arrived. While it had been frustrating waiting for security concerns to be overcome, Bolduc was sure the UN would be able to start work soon.
Last week, WFP reported that in Basra most food and flour agents - over 1,300 - were in place. About 44,000 such agents are needed to distribute food throughout the country as well as a complex network of mills, silos and warehouses.
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