NEW YORK - Sixty percent of Iraqi people don't have access to clean water, and unclean water is already a major cause of death in Iraqi children, said Margaret Hassan, Iraq program officer for CARE.
In a Jan. 29 meeting here, Hassan talked with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) staff about how war might affect Iraqi people. Hassan, who is British, has lived in Iraq for 30 years and has been working for the humanitarian agency, CARE International, since 1992.
MCC supports CARE's work in Iraq, which includes helping Iraqi families with access to health care and clean water. Water plants and pumping stations refurbished through CARE International benefit more than 2 million Iraqis.
Infrastructure targeted in war
If in the event of war, military forces target electricity infrastructure - as happened during the 1991 Gulf War - Iraq's ailing water and sanitation systems would not function at all, worsening the situation and leading to additional outbreaks of dysentery and other illnesses, Hassan said.
Fuel stations would also be out, leaving people without means of transportation.
"(Iraqis) know what war is like," Hassan said, noting not only the Gulf War but also more recent U.S. missile attacks. The long 1980s war with Iran still looms in the Iraqi people's memory.
"But this is not 1991 all over again," she continued. "In '91 people had money." As the economy has suffered because of international sanctions, Iraqi people have been forced to sell their assets: furnishings, jewelry, appliances. Additional hardships caused by war could be devastating, Hassan said.
Much of the population depends on monthly food rations distributed by the Iraqi government. Currently the government is giving two months' worth of rations so people can meagerly stock up before a war would begin.
Hassan said she recently met a teacher who has sold all of his furniture and purchases second-hand clothing for his family on credit. His daughter dropped out of school because they couldn't afford appropriate clothing.
MCC partnership with CARE
MCC's assistance to CARE dates back to the mid-1990s. Most recently, MCC contributed $23,500 Cdn./$15,000 U.S. toward CARE's purchase of large water "bladder" tanks, which are made from a polymer material and hold between 200 and 250,000 liters of liquid. These portable tanks "can be crucial" to providing clean water to hospitals and elsewhere, Hassan said.
CARE will also receive at least 10,000 relief kits that MCC plans to ship to Iraq this spring. The included supplies - towels, soap, detergent, toothpaste and brushes, bandages and buckets - will be needed in Iraq regardless of war, Hassan said, noting that many "Iraqi children have never seen a toothbrush."
CARE plans to distribute the kits to hospitals and other institutions that serve people in need, and if warranted, to families who lose their homes to bombing.
Hassan commended MCC for continually "chipping away at the sanctions issues" in addition to sending humanitarian aid. MCC has spoken out against U.N.-imposed economic sanctions in Iraq through statements and letters to the United Nations, debriefings with government and diplomatic staff and other advocacy work. MCC has also sponsored delegation visits to Iraq and carried out a food parcel protest aimed at U.S. congressional representatives.
The sanctions' impact "has too often been diverted onto those least able to protect themselves, the elderly and children," said Bob Herr, MCC Peace Office co-director.
"The support we've felt from Mennonites is phenomenal and important," Hassan said.
Speaking out against possible war
MCC is also voicing opinions against a possible war in Iraq.
On Jan. 31 MCC signed a letter urging the U.N. Security Council to consider being briefed on the implications of war on non-combatants and children in Iraq. "As international humanitarian agencies responding globally to need, we are deeply concerned that the Council is consistently overlooking the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of potential military intervention, particularly on children," the letter read.
During her brief, but intensive, visit to New York, Hassan met with senior U.N. officials, including members of the U.N. Security Council, to convey the urgency of the humanitarian situation.