The region again faces the prospect of a major humanitarian emergency, but shortage of funds has limited forward planning and prepositioning of supplies to meet humanitarian needs during and after the conflict.
"The most vulnerable - households headed by women and by older people, children who are without support, and older or disabled people who have mobility or chronic health problems - will be especially at risk," says Adam Platt, HelpAge International's Head of Programmes.
HelpAge International, which has worked in northern Iraq since 1997, is preparing to preposition relief supplies, purchased locally, to support older people and their families. Work will initially focus on northern Iraq, but a presence will be established in Baghdad if circumstances permit. "HelpAge International advocates for strong coordination between operational NGOs, and with UN agencies, and the local authorities," says Adam Platt.
Older people fearful for families
HelpAge International is the only organisation in northern Iraq that works specifically with and for older people. Its programme includes home visiting and small-scale income generation in the Amadiay area of Dohuk governorate and in the Kalar area of New Kirkuk governorate.
About 10 per cent of the older people in the programmes are solely responsible for other family members, including children. "They have to make decisions about the safety of the family. In the current situation of uncertainty, they feel ill-prepared due to lack of resources and information," says Christine Smith, programme manager for the Dohuk office.
People are already on the move
HelpAge International's projects in New Kirkuk - in Shorish, Bardasoor and Rizgary collective towns - are located within a few kilometres of the front line with Iraqi forces. Field staff report that, as of 18 March, an estimated 70 per cent of the population of Shorish collective town has fled. Some people have gone to the city of Sulaimaniyah and surrounding villages in the mountains. Others have nowhere to go.
Two thirds of the population of Dohuk city are reported to have moved out to villages and smaller towns. People fleeing from government-controlled Mosul and Kirkuk, have been arriving in the Kurdish-administered areas.
Older people at risk
For the poorest older people, fleeing their homes presents a number of difficulties. They may lack money for transport, or may have mobility problems.
As people flee, older men and women may be left behind or choose to remain in their homes to guard their property. They risk finding themselves isolated and unprotected.
Older people who do leave their homes are vulnerable to rapid debilitation caused by diarrhoea, in the same way as children are. In the mountains of northern Iraq, where it is still very cold, they are at particular risk of hypothermia.
Sanctions have increased vulnerability
Twelve years of UN economic sanctions against Iraq, only partially mitigated by the UN 'oil for food' programme, have led to a serious deterioration in the quality of life for the general population and undermined the local economy in northern Iraq. High levels of unemployment and very limited pension provision have sharply reduced the resources available to older people.
About 60 per cent of the Iraqi population depend on the rations provided under the oil for food programme. These were suspended when UN staff withdrew from Iraq on 17 March. The World Food Programme is therefore no longer distributing rations in northern Iraq. Most people have stored their extra food rations, distributed since last September, while a small number of richer people have bought extra rice, wheat and flour to store. Others have sold the extra rations, either because they do not have room to store it or because they need the money. HelpAge International is concerned that people who are forced to flee may not be able to take their stored food supply with them.
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