Tuesday 25 March 2003
Red Cross experts struggled on Tuesday to get clean water flowing in Iraq's second city of Basra and avert a humanitarian crisis as aid agencies waited anxiously for access to the south of the country.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said as many as 60 percent of the some two million people in Basra, scene of heavy fighting between U.S. and British forces against Iraqi, had been without clean water for five days, prompting fears of epidemics.
Just to the south, a senior British commander said the port of Umm Qasr, through which much of the aid would flow, was "safe and open" but in Baghdad a top government official denied the town had fallen.
United NationsSecretary-General Kofi Annan, who has expressed alarm at the situation in Basra, has called a meeting of U.N. aid agency chiefs in New York on Wednesday to discuss Iraq's humanitarian situation.
The U.N. is preparing to launch an appeal for over $1 billion in aid for Iraq, where U.S.-led forces began a military assault last Thursday to topple the government, which it accuses of having weapons of mass destruction.
But the U.N. is deadlocked over how and when to resume Iraq's oil-for-food program which is vital for the longer term needs of Iraqis. The program was suspended by Annan early last week before U.S.-led forces began their invasion.
The United States and its British allies are anxious to get aid rolling, but persistent pockets of resistance in the south and lack of full control over Umm Qasr, the country's only deep-water port, have delayed this.
"Umm Qasr is now safe and open and we are beginning to deliver aid, or we will be shortly," Brigadier Jim Dutton, commander of the British Royal Marines 3 Commando Brigade, told journalists. He said he hoped the first ship carrying aid would arrive within the next couple of days.
Humanitarian agencies say they believe that Iraqi families have enough food to last for several weeks and that their main concern is about supplies of fresh water, particularly in Basra.
"There are reports of people drinking river water that has sewage flowing into it. That is an alarming sign. For children, the elderly and the more vulnerable, it could be serious," said Antonella Notari, spokeswoman for the Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
WHO said the lack of clean water could lead to a rapid rise in respiratory infections, diarrhea diseases and measles, which are already major killers of children in Iraq.
"The last few days have raised real concern for the welfare of civilians caught in the conflict, especially children," said the head of the U.N. Children's Fund Carol Bellamy.
The Swiss-based ICRC said a repair team had reached the Wafa al-Qaed water treatment plant, which supplies over 60 percent of the city's water and has been out of action since a power failure on Friday, after getting safety guarantees.
"We have a team there and we are hoping that they will be able to bring water to Basra," Notari said.
Notari said that other water treatment plants were able to supply only around 30 percent of Basra's needs, less than the 40 percent previously stated, and the quality was poor.
Daytime temperatures in Basra, which has a population of around two million, can soar toward 104 degrees Fahrenheit at this time of year.
A spokeswoman for the U.N.'s New York-based Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in Geneva that agencies might try to set up a humanitarian corridor from the south once it was safe to enter.
"We are monitoring the situation in Basra. We may envisage setting up a humanitarian corridor if information we receive indicates that quick assistance is needed," Elisabeth Byrs told a briefing.
U.N. officials have said that once aid begins to arrive in Iraq, distribution should be left to humanitarian agencies, both U.N. and non-governmental (NGOs).
"Only civilian organizations ... can guarantee the impartial distribution of essential supplies," U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst told journalists in Amman. That independence gave them the protection needed in such situations, he added.
Britain urged the United Nations to act quickly to reactivate the oil-for-food program which brought in $10 billion a year through sales of Iraqi oil.
"We need to get that up and running again as quickly as possible," said International Development Secretary Clare Short, noting 16 million Iraqis depended on handouts to survive.
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)