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UN warns about humanitarian situation

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(United Nations)

The United Nations in the capital, Baghdad, has warned that the humanitarian situation in Iraq is still precarious and could deteriorate if assistance were to dry up.

"You often hear that there is no humanitarian disaster in Iraq, and I tend to agree," the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Ramiro da Silva, said in Baghdad. "But you have to remember that we have not yet gone over the hump. The potential for humanitarian disaster still exists."

For example, da Silva said, even before the war, one million children under five years of age suffered from chronic malnutrition. Factors such as this showed the extreme fragility of the country in terms of its humanitarian situation.

Carel de Rooy, the representative in Iraq for the UN children’s fund UNICEF, said people mistakenly believed the war was over and so, therefore, were the people’s needs. "There is this whole sense of safety - ‘oh, everything is fine, there’s no problem’. And if we don’t move rapidly we can see the situation deteriorating very quickly, because we know how tenuous the situation was before the war started. The situation now is worse, so we are very close to a humanitarian crisis of great dimensions if we don’t move rapidly enough."

The UN has just begun bringing international staff back to Baghdad, and the situation confronting them is dire. Many people still have no clean drinking water, diarrhoea is rife, hospitals are under pressure, some medicines are running low, electricity is limited, sewage disposal systems are struggling to keep up with demand, fuel is scarce, most people have not been paid or have lost their jobs, and inflation is rising rapidly.

The World Food Programme’s (WFP) representative in Iraq, Torben Due, said his agency had launched its biggest programme ever to bring food into the country. "The economy has gone down, food prices in the market have gone up. For that reason it is very critical to get in the food in time now, because otherwise there will be a crisis.”

One pressing need was to cover a shortfall of 200,000 mt of cooking oil and pulses, which WFP did not have. "These are very important commodities as they provide the protein and the fats in the diet. It’s critical to get these commodities, to get the full food basket for the population," Due said.

Before the war, 60 percent of Iraqis depended entirely on food rations, and WFP was desperately trying to restore this distribution system. Due estimated that food stocks held by most households would suffice for only two to three weeks, which was why it was vital to resurrect the system quickly. "Our preliminary discussions with the senior officials of the ministry of trade indicate that the structure is in place," he said. "The 45,000 food agents that were doing the food distribution to the population are still there and ready to start working."

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) representative in Iraq, Ghulam Popal, said WHO faced a huge challenge preventing outbreaks of disease and controlling any such outbreak if it occurred. "Now that water is not clean and the sanitation is bad and public health programmes have completely broken down, I’m afraid that the potential for having a cholera outbreak is very high," he said.

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

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