Cash-starved U.N. plans to feed all Iraq in war

By David Brough and Karen Iley

ROME/GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations aid agencies, preparing to feed at least 10 million Iraqis in the event of a war, say donors have given only a quarter of the $120 million needed for emergency supplies.

"We urgently need additional funds...Very little money has been provided. There's a gap of about $90 million," said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Geneva Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) is preparing to feed at least 10 million people and possibly the whole country if the public food handout system collapses in the event of a U.S.-led attack, but like other U.N. bodies is desperately short of cash.

Trevor Rowe, chief spokesman of the Rome-based WFP, told Reuters on Wednesday the world's biggest food aid agency might have to feed most Iraqis if the U.N.-backed oil-for-food programme broke down.

Some 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, still living under U.N. trade sanctions imposed on Baghdad after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, depend totally on the public food handouts.

Under the oil-for-food programme, which started in 1996, Iraq is allowed to sell oil to buy food, medicine and other humanitarian goods for the Iraqi people.

"We are looking at 10 million or more people that would have to be assisted potentially," Rowe said. "But the whole oil-for-food system could collapse and we could be in a situation where the WFP and the international community would have to feed all of Iraq."

Most of the cash that has arrived has come from the United States, which has warned Baghdad of imminent attack if it does not rid itself of its alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Spain, a close U.S. ally on the Iraq crisis, pledged on Wednesday to send $5.5 million in humanitarian aid to Iraq.


Aid officials say the sluggish response from some donor countries appears to be related to the fact that donors traditionally react best only when a crisis has already erupted.

"Many donors are reluctant to provide funds until they see a serious need," said Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR).

WFP's Rowe said that response did not augur well if it had to appeal to the international community for food to feed the entire Iraqi population.

"That money would have to be mobilised almost instantly immediately following the first shot or the first bomb," Rowe said. "If there is an interruption to the oil-for-food system, the clock will begin ticking and time will be of the essence."

WFP, which has fared better than some other U.N. agencies, has so far received pledges of just $7.5 million for food after appealing for some $23 million in a contingency plan to feed 900,000 Iraqis in a 10-week period.

War would worsen an already bleak situation for Iraq's 25 million people, who, 12 years after the first Gulf War, have yet to see their health and sanitation systems, including water distribution, return to pre-conflict standards.

Rowe estimated that Iraqi households currently had enough food provisions to last six weeks and said he understood that stocks in warehouses were low.

OCHA estimates that 50 percent of the population could be left without clean water in the event of conflict.

The U.N. Children's fund (UNICEF), which will head relief work for water and sanitation, has just $2 million of the $14 million it was to receive under the appeal.

"Our message is clear. Even without a conflict, Iraq has ongoing needs now and they will become all the more urgent once war breaks out," spokeswoman Wivina Belmonte said.

Donors have come up with just over $16 million for refugees from the $60 million needed by UNHCR, which, together with cash borrowed from its strategic reserves, has been enough to build up supplies for some 180,000 people.

The United Nations fears up to 1.45 million people could flee any war to neighbouring countries such as Iran and Turkey.

Despite receiving less than $1 million dollars after a $6 million appeal, the World Health Organisation has been able to prepare staff and set up communication lines, as well as ship in medical kits to assist 240,000 people.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit