RI and IRC: U.S. - Unprepared for humanitarian problems in Iraq

Washington Post OP-ED
The Washington Post
March 7, 2003
Unready for the Aftermath

By Kenneth H. Bacon and George Rupp

Despite months of planning by the Bush administration to respond to the humanitarian challenges that could follow an attack against Iraq, preparations for dealing with displacement, injury, illness and food shortages remain inadequate. If current problems continue, the suffering caused by war could be amplified by lack of aid resources and coordination.

The most urgent need could be food. The United States boasts that it has shipped nearly 3 million humanitarian daily rations to the region to help feed Iraqis. But individual meal packets will feed only a tiny portion of Iraq's 24 million people, and for just a few days. A United Nations official recently called U.S. and U.N. preparations to feed the Iraqi people "grossly inadequate." The official said that "they need to be sending ships of wheat to the Persian Gulf, along with ships of soldiers."

More than a decade of U.N. sanctions has left approximately 16 million Iraqis dependent on government rations for their entire food supply under the U.N. Oil-for-Food program; most of the remaining 8 million Iraqis rely on government rations for a portion of their daily food basket. The U.N. Children's Fund estimates that more than 2 million Iraqi children will require therapeutic feeding in the event of a conflict.

A break in the U.N. food pipeline could cause "extremely grave" conditions, Ramiro Lopes da Silva, director of the U.N. World Food Program office in Baghdad, told The Post. He estimates that 10 million people could run out of food within six weeks of the start of a war. "After that we will have to feed 10 million people. Eventually, we'll have to feed the entire population," Lopes da Silva said. The World Food Program currently has enough food in the region to feed 900,000 people for 10 weeks.

Preparations to deal with refugees and displaced people also are behind schedule. The United Nations estimates that in the "medium impact scenario" -- a two- to three-month conflict involving ground troops -- 1.45 million refugees and asylum seekers would try to reach neighboring countries, and 900,000 people would be newly displaced within Iraq. Yet Ruud Lubbers says that his agency, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the world's first responder when people flee their countries, lacks the resources to prepare for a flood of refugees.

So far the U.N. refugee office has raised less than $20 million of the $60 million it is seeking for tents, stoves, blankets and other materials for refugee camps. Most of that money came from the United States. As result, the agency has positioned only about 20 percent of the equipment it needs in the region.

In a flurry of news conferences last week, administration officials admitted that the military may have to provide food and medical assistance during and immediately after a conflict, but they said humanitarian tasks would quickly be turned over to the United Nations and private relief agencies. Sadly, private relief agencies, most of which depend on government funding, aren't yet well prepared for the task.

Although the United States has spent $2.4 billion to send troops to the Persian Gulf region, it has spent less than $1 million to position relief agencies in the region. An official at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recently told a conference that his biggest concern is the small number of private relief agencies ready to move quickly into Iraq.

Lack of preparedness by U.N. and private relief agencies means the U.S. military will have to do most of the relief work, and this in turn could mean that the suffering of the Iraqi people will be greater than necessary. Administration officials have done little to match the skills of relief agencies -- some are specialists in medical care, others in water and sanitation projects, for instance -- with projected needs. One urgent unanswered question is: Who will care for Iraqis exposed to weapons of mass destruction? Humanitarian organizations lack the skills and equipment to handle this challenge.

In modern warfare, precision bombs limit civilian casualties during the conflict, so that most death and suffering occurs in the post-conflict period, when people are displaced, poorly fed or prone to disease because water sanitation and sewage systems have been disabled. This means that rapid humanitarian intervention is just as important to holding casualties down as quick military victory.

The United States may be ready for war, but it is not yet ready to help Iraq recover from war.

Kenneth H. Bacon, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs from 1994 to 2001, is president of Refugees International. George Rupp is president of the International Rescue Committee.

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