As food stocks dwindle in southern Iraq, the United Nations and aid organisations are racing to meet the looming need. Before the war, 60 percent of Iraqis relied entirely on food rations from the UN's Oil-for-Food Programme (OFFP) administered in the south by the Iraqi government.
In the run-up to the war, the government increased rations to give people a stockpile of such items as flour and rice. However, with distributions having been halted for well over a month and new supplies still unable to enter the south, relief workers are urgently seeking to avert a food crisis in the area. Those involved are relying on being able to resurrect the food distribution system that was operating before the war that used 44,000 food and flour agents throughout the country to distribute rations.
A spokeswoman for the UN World Food Programme (WFP), Antonia Paradela, explained from Kuwait City that the agency's Iraqi staff were evaluating whatever infrastructure remained, including warehouses, silos, mills and power supplies so that everything would be ready when it became possible for food to be brought in from Kuwait or elsewhere.
At present, food supplies remain in Kuwaiti warehouses because of security concerns over moving them, together with international staff, into southern Iraq. Paradela said the general understanding was that people had food for May, but it was crucial that fresh supplies were brought in during that time to be ready to meet need from June onwards.
WFP needed to ensure that the distribution network was in place with food agents ready to operate. And while little food had arrived so far, she made a point of reassuring the Iraqi people that the UN would be there as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, the response from the food agents in the south had been heartening so far. More than 200 of them had approached WFP in An-Nasiriyah, saying they were ready to resume work, and in Basra Province, where there were 2,556 agents, virtually all of them had told WFP they were ready to collect rations from warehouses for distribution.
While one WFP warehouse in Basra was looted after the fall of the city, two others, still have supplies to supplement those due to arrive from outside the country. The existing supplies include comprise flour, rice, pulses, cooking oil, baby milk and salt.
On Thursday, a meeting was held in Basra between WFP representatives and former government officials from the trade ministry who had been involved with food distributions under the OFFP, in the hope that distributions could begin very shortly.
For Muhammad Sadiq, restarting food distributions in Basra cannot come quickly enough. He uses 20 sacks of wheat flour a day, each weighing 50 kg, to make bread for hungry locals. But he estimates he only has supplies sufficient for another two weeks at the most, and desperately needs to be re-stocked. Kerosene used for the ovens was expensive now and could only be found on the black market, he said.
It is not only fuel that is expensive in Basra in the wake of the war. What food is for sale is much dearer than two months ago. A vegetable seller, Ayad Ahmad, said prices were on average about a third higher than normal.
But with few people in Basra getting paid or having a job any more, he only has about half the customers he used to, as people try and survive on their basic rations. A wander through the food market in Basra would suggest that everything was pretty normal. There are oranges, apples and kiwifruit from Iran, and the locally produced vegetables includes cucumbers, capsicums, onions, garlic, potatoes, okra, beans, carrots, aubergines, squash and the ubiquitous tomatoes. Fish from the nearby Shatt-al Arab river attract plenty of flies, but few buyers.
The reality is that with the country's future so uncertain and the economy shattered, people in southern Iraq are careful with their remaining food and money.
Husayn Ali Tayeh said the price of potatoes had doubled since the outbreak of the fighting. "Instead of buying one kilogramme, we maybe buy half."
And even if distributions begin again soon, it will be too late for some who have fallen through the cracks. Sitting in the rooms of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Basra, 45-year-old Majidah awdat Zahrah has tears streaming down her partially covered face. She has completely run out of food and the ICRC is her last resort.
Her husband deserted her 10 years ago, leaving her with seven children and no means of supporting herself. Denied a ration card by the Iraqi government because she had been living in Kuwait, Majidah relied on the goodwill and help of others to survive. But now everyone is running short and guarding their meagre supplies. Her brother had taken the children away from her, because she could no longer feed them.
While individual cases can be dealt with, only the international community working with local Iraqis to rapidly revive food distributions in the south will be able to prevent a wave of hardship and misery such as Majidah's.
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