BAGHDAD, 25 July (IRIN) - A shortage of items in Iraq's monthly food rations is starting to worry government planners and the UN World Food Programme, particularly as most of the Iraqi population still depends on food aid.
"There is a shortage of oil, tea, sugar, rice and washing powder, across all governorates," said Ali Mazlon, deputy director of the state company for food stuff at the Ministry of Trade, which is responsible for the distribution of food items under the Public Distribution System [PDS].
The WFP reported significant commodity shortages earlier this month. "The July circle of the PDS is well underway," it said in mid-July. "However, there continue to be significant shortages in the supply of commodities in many governorates.
"This situation has been exacerbated by the continuing shortages in water and electricity, and now increasingly in fuel such as gas, kerosene and petrol."
Mazlon said there were several reasons for the shortages. First of all there was insecurity, he said, with few trucking companies willing to operate in Iraq because of the kidnapping of some drivers and threats to others, particularly on the western border with Syria.
There has also been a slow response to Iraq's food and commodity needs by suppliers, he added.
"I have not had any tea, sugar or oil for a month - and I cannot afford to buy it," Baghdad housewife Samira Jabbar said.
At present tea is being imported from Sri Lanka and India, rice from Thailand and the US, sugar from Brazil and the United Arab Emirates, and oil from various countries worldwide.
"We understand that this is a big problem, but there is not much we can do at the moment as we are also waiting for more funds to come through," Mazlon said, but without specifying the figures expected or received.
"WFP is concerned about the shortfall in the rations as it seriously affects the poorest sections of the Iraqi population," senior spokesman for the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, Khaled Mansour, said from Cairo.
The monthly food ration is the only source of food for many in Iraq. A baseline study released by the WFP and the Iraqi government in 2004 found that around 25 percent of the population was highly dependent on the public distribution system, and that 11 percent of the population was extremely poor.
Another survey to determine the current food security situation in the country is planned this year.
Before the war started in March 2003, aid agencies were saying that 60 percent of the Iraqi population was dependent on food aid. However, there was no real way of making an accurate assessment during Saddam Hussein's rule.
The PDS was set up in the early 1990s by the Iraqi government after UN sanctions were imposed following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. It became more effective after the Iraqi government agreed to implement the Oil for Food Programme, which used some of Iraqi oil revenues to ensure an uninterrupted supply of foodstuff to the PDS.
The Ministry of Trade has been fully responsible for importing and distributing food since September 2004.
WFP supported the PDS substantially in 2003 and 2004, but is now supporting a school-feeding programme only in the poorest areas. So far, nearly 20,000 mt of commodities have been provided under this activity. However, WFP has reported a US $40 million shortfall in funding for this operation and for improvements to the PDS.
There are plans by the Iraqi Ministry of Planning to include a social safety net programme for particularly poor and vulnerable people, but there are no accurate details on these plans yet.
Aid workers say Iraqi officials are looking at ways of bringing the PDS up to date with current needs, which could include reform and monetisation. The monthly food ration has been in place for 14 years.
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