Sunday May 11, 2003
Iraqi agriculture is on the brink of collapse, with fears that many of its 24.5 million people will go hungry this summer, according to a confidential report being studied by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.
A special assessment prepared by the UN agency's staff in Rome, which has been seen by The Observer, reveals a catastrophe in the making, with crops and poultry being especially hard hit.
Government warehouses that would have served as the main suppliers of seeds, fertilisers and pesticide sprays have been looted, particularly in the centre and south of the country.
Iraqi farmers should now be planting tomatoes and onions, potatoes, cucumbers, water melon, peppers, beans and squash. But without seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, that will be hard - a situation exacerbated by the collapse of the pumping stations that powered the irrigation schemes on which the vegetable crop depends.
'Vegetables and poultry are particularly important because they are the main source of protein, vitamins, minerals and a host of micro-nutrients that are missing from the oil-for-food basket which is also why malnutrition is endemic in Iraq,' said spokesman Barry Came.
Sixty per cent of the population has depended on the oil-for-food programme, instituted at the end of the 1991Gulf war. Under the programme, Iraq received supplies of wheat, pulses and flour in exchange for oil.
The FAO calls the report a 'preliminary desk assessment' and is expected to release a statement commenting on its main points by Wednesday.
In the southern and central areas, vital irrigation networks have been destroyed, a once-thriving poultry industry has been ruined and there are predictions of disease and pestilence among both plants and animals.
Enormous difficulties are anticipated in harvesting winter crops, 1.2 million tons of wheat, barley, rice and maize. Under Saddam, harvesting normally started this month, with a touring fleet of ageing combined harvesters.
Lack of spare parts had long put a strain on the harvesters available and now no mechanism exists for purchasing the yield. In previous years, the Ministry of Trade bought the crop, stored it and arranged for banks to pay farmers, who in turn used the revenues to buy the seeds for their summer vegetable crops.
But this year no seeds have been planted because, even if the farmers had money to buy them, most of the seed stock has been looted or destroyed.
Iraqi's poultry industry, source of the half of the animal protein eaten by the population, is also in dire straits. All the soybean and protein concentrate feed stored in government warehouses was stolen, along with vaccines, drugs and medicines required to keep the stock healthy.
Both the major poultry projects that once supplied Iraqi chicken farmers with layers and hatching eggs have collapsed. Thousands of birds have starved to death.
Animal health is another major concern. Most of the veterinary hospitals and clinics were looted or destroyed, and vehicles, drugs, medicines and food ingredients disappeared.
The impact could be severe in a country where disease is rife among the 18 million sheep and goats and three million cattle. Some are capable of transmission to humans, so constant control is required.
The warning came as America's efforts to get Iraq's Health Ministry up and running twisted into farce yesterday, when it emerged that the new Minister concerned was a Saddam crony.
Dr Ali Shnan Janabi, former number three in Saddam's infamously corrupt Ministry, was presented to an all-day conference of doctors. His appointment was greeted with disbelief and charges of corruption from many doctors.
Dr Hussein Harith, a senior registrar at the al-Mansour teaching hospital, said Dr Shnan was one of a 'group of senior Ministers who asked the directors of hospitals to report that they did not need drugs and medicines [supplied to Iraq under the oil-for-food programme], even though they were desperate for them.
There were happier scenes in Basra, where the 63-year-old leader of Iraq's biggest Shia group returned from exile yesterday. Supporters waved flags and chanted slogans when the convoy of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim crossed into Iraq from Iran, where he has led the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq since 1980.
Thousands lined the 12-mile road from the border to Basra, where up to 100,000 people packed a stadium to listen to him address them for the first time in 23 years.