Q&A: The humanitarian concerns of a Iraq conflict

1. What would be the humanitarian consequence of a conflict in Iraq?
It is difficult to predict, but even a brief conflict is likely to affect millions of people throughout Iraq. The United Nations estimates that as many as 10 million people could be directly impacted. Mercy Corps assessments in the region indicate that it is likely that hundreds of thousands would seek refuge in Jordan, Turkey, Iran and Kuwait. If electrical grids are disrupted and sanitation facilities damaged there would also likely be serious nutritional and public health risks for large numbers of families remaining in Iraq. The possibility of internal fighting, similar to what occurred during the Gulf crisis in 1990-1991, could also have serious humanitarian consequences.

2. How is the situation different than during the Gulf crisis in 1990-1991?

More than a million people fled Iraq during and after the Gulf crisis. Unlike a decade ago, today 16 million of Iraq's 24 million people depend entirely on food rations provided under the U.N. Oil for Food Program. Any break in the food pipeline will likely create a widespread nutritional crisis. Additionally, the collapse of the Iraqi economy has left more than half the population unemployed and has diminished the capacity of individual families to meet their basic needs without government support. Health facilities have fallen into disrepair and basic medicines are not readily available. Much of the Iraqi population is already weakened by public health problems attributable to unsanitary conditions, including polluted water and inadequate nutrition.

3. Who would be most impacted by a conflict in Iraq?

In most conflicts women and children, and the elderly and sick are disproportionately affected. In Iraq, the situation is compounded by the current living conditions. Two wars, decades of government misrule and more than a decade of international sanctions has left Iraq's children weak. UNICEF estimates that nearly one-quarter of children under five suffer from malnutrition. The problems, already vast, could swell in the event of a prolonged conflict.

4. What is Mercy Corps doing right now?

Mercy Corps has established an Iraq Emergency Response team to work with its offices and international partners in the region to plan for a humanitarian crisis. Mercy Corps Global Emergency Operations (GEO) members have performed needs assessments in Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey. Mercy Corps staff members are working with global partner, Peace Winds Japan, to prepare for possible refugee flows in Northern Iraq and Iran. Mercy Corps has also been permitted to work in Kuwait in the event that families seek refuge along the Kuwait-Iraq border. In Jordan, Mercy Corps has joined International Medical Corps, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children/US, and World Vision as a member of the Joint NGO Emergency Preparedness Initiative (JNEPI) - a clearinghouse for information gathered by participating agencies through their assessments and experiences in the region.

5. What are some of the challenges facing Mercy Corps and its international partners?

Unlike in Afghanistan where Mercy Corps and other groups had years of experience, private international agencies have not been able to work inside large areas in Iraq since the mid-1990s. The lack of established links means that the existing UN support network, the only humanitarian program in Iraq, could easily be interrupted if there is a conflict. Relief agencies are also concerned about the possible use of biological or chemical weapons that could make a humanitarian crisis even worse and make it difficult for humanitarian workers -- often the first responders to emergencies -- to provide aid. Humanitarian agencies have no experience working in a chemical or biological damaged environment and no one knows for sure how relief workers would be able to operate.

6. What can I do to help right now?

You can support Mercy Corps' humanitarian planning by making an online donation or:

Mail: Mercy Corps
Iraq Emergency Fund
Dept. W
PO Box 2669
Portland, OR 97208
Phone: 1-800-292-3355 x250