New York Times
Monday 24 March 2003
KUWAIT, March 24 Despite President Bush's assurance that "massive amounts" of humanitarian aid should begin flowing to areas of southern Iraq soon, relief workers and British military officials who will lead the effort said that timetable was impossible.
The reality of the situation on the ground in southern Iraq, where sporadic fighting continued today, particularly in the port city of Umm Qasr, is so insecure that relief workers say it will take at least several days and probably weeks before aid can really start being delivered into the country.
The situation is most dire in Basra, Iraq's second largest city, with more than 1.5 million people, where the electricity and water have been cut off for the past three days, according to the International Committee for the Red Cross. It is not clear whether allied bombing or the Iraqis are responsible for the power outage.
Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, said today that it was critical that the water and electricity be restored in Basra.
"I have heard a report from the Red Cross that the people in Basra may be facing a humanitarian disaster in that they have no water and they have no electricity," he said.
"A city of that size cannot afford to go without electricity or water for long. Apart from the water aspect, you can imagine what it does for sanitation."
Geoffrey Keele, a spokesmen for Unicef, the United Nations organization that will take a lead role in assuring that water continues to flow in Iraq, said, "Clean water is essential to the health and well being of the people." He added, "There is a lot of concern that there could be a crisis there and it could be soon."
Military planners had hoped to secure the port at Umm Qasr quickly and get aid moving northward almost immediately. However, they have met stiffer resistance than they expected and say it is still too unsafe for relief workers.
Gen. Tommy R. Franks said today that only half the mines had been cleared in the port, and on the ground soldiers continued to fight pockets of Iraqi irregular soldiers. Still, he was confident that aid would only be slightly delayed.
"I think what you'll find is that the people of Basra will, in the days ahead, be able to have more access to food and more access to water than they have had in decades," he said, noting that relief may still be weeks away in Basra and days away in Umm Qasr.
The city of Umm Qasr, Iraq's only port on the Persian Gulf, figures prominently in the allied effort to get aid to southern Iraq. British officials said they have a ship, the Sir Galahad, six hours from the port and ready to go. Once they can get the ship in port, they hope to open 12 aid distribution centers in Umm Qasr.
Before the fighting started, the port received 60 percent of the supplies distributed in Iraq under the oil-for-food program. Since United Nations-imposed sanctions were put in place after the first Persian Gulf war, about 16 million people in Iraq rely almost solely on the rations they receive from the program.
Keeping those distribution centers running is critical to averting a humanitarian crisis, relief workers say. While the war is in its early days and the people of Iraq are believed to have enough food to last for about a month, the situation in Basra presents a more immediate concern.
It is difficult to know exactly what the conditions are on the ground in Basra since western journalists have not been able to work in the city and British and American soldiers remain on the outskirts.
However, it is clear that there is a serious problem with the water supply. The International Red Cross observers in the city said the Wafa al-Qaed water treatment plant, which is run by electricity, has not been working because of a power outage. Although there are other treatment centers, they are only able to supply about 40 percent of the usual needs.
"If we do not manage to re-establish the water system in Basra very rapidly to a sufficient level, we will have a major humanitarian crisis," said Balthasar Staehelin, the International Red Cross director general for the Middle East and North Africa.
The situation is also complicated by the already poor conditions in Iraq.
"There are 500,000 tons of raw sewage dumped into fresh bodies of water every day, so you can imagine the level of contamination," said Mr. Keele, who worked in Baghdad up until recently. After the first gulf war, when electricity was knocked out all over the country for months, the lack of clean water led to a cholera outbreak.
Mr. Keele said they had established emergency plans for dealing with a possible crisis in Baghdad, installing 76 backup power generators, distributing millions of water purification tablets and filling tanks with thousands of liters of water that could be distributed in an emergency. But because of a lack of funding, Mr. Keele said they had not been able to put emergency provisions in Basra.
The administration has repeatedly said that getting relief aid to the people of Iraq is a priority.
However, Defense Minister Geoff Hoon of Britain said today that the port might take several more days to be opened. Moving the aid north will be more difficult. It is impossible to know when the Basra area might be secure enough to begin moving in aid and getting the water running.
Although military planners have said Basra is not strategically important, British and American soldiers have been engaged in heavy fighting around the area.
The Iraqi Red Crescent told the Arab language television station al-Jazeera that 77 people were killed in allied bombing over the weekend and that the Al-Zubeir bridge, a key entry point into the city from the west, was bombed today.
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