Humanitarian Aid in Iraq
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MARGARET WARNER: When U.S. and British forces moved into southern Iraq, they found people desperate for clean water and, in some cases, food, but early relief efforts in the southern towns of Umm Qasr and Safwan were chaotic. Farther north in Nasiriyah, U.S. Marines handed out short-term rations, but it’s still too dangerous to deliver massive aid.
The situation in the south is improving. With mines cleared from the port of Umm Qasr, the British ship “Sir Galahad” unloaded food and medicine. British marines completed a water pipeline from Kuwait to the port city. In Basra, coalition forces have distributed medicine and water in Basra, and restored water treatment plants. In Washington Wednesday, Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, announced several grants to NGO’s for Iraqi relief, and an additional $200 million grant to the U.N.’s World Food Program, enough, he said, to feed Iraq’s 23 million people for one month. But many N.G.O’.S say they don’t want to go into Iraq if the U.S. Military is running the show. Natsios responded.
ANDREW NATSIOS: We don’t have our own security, so we have rely on the American military for security, but the U.S. Military does not direct our relief operations. And they’re not doing that now.
MARGARET WARNER: Michael marks heads DART, the USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team for Iraq. Tom Bearden spoke to him in Qatar.
MICHAEL MARX: I think we’re seeing pockets of need, pockets of vulnerable populations that have definite needs, but we’re not seeing an overall humanitarian crisis.
TOM BEARDEN: We’ve seen scenes of near riots in trucks that are trying to distribute aid in some places in Iraq. Is that a considerable concern to you?
MICHAEL MARX: It’s a concern, but it points to the fact that the international humanitarian community needs to get back in there, because it is the professional organizations, the NGO’s, the U.N., that understand how to set up a distribution system that is effective, that is efficient, and respects the dignity of the vulnerable populations.
TOM BEARDEN: Do you think the aid workers will be welcome?
MICHAEL MARX: I think the aid workers have been welcome in other situations, in other combat situations, and for the aid worker, it’s a fairly clean, clear mandate. They go in there to provide humanitarian assistance, to meet the needs of the population, and I’m sure there’s going to be trouble– there is everywhere that the humanitarian community goes– but I do think the humanitarian community, the non- governmental organizations, will be welcome.
MARGARET WARNER: Marx says the safety of aid workers is the most immediate hurdle to getting relief into the country.
MICHAEL MARX: One of the big issues right now is the security situation and the ability of the international humanitarian community, the civilians, to get in there and do the assessments.
TOM BEARDEN: So you have to be safe before you can help the people there.
MICHAEL MARX: Absolutely, and each organization has to make their own decision.
TOM BEARDEN: How do you secure food distribution? Do you need to have armed people around?
MICHAEL MARX: No, absolutely not. An organized distribution method which is clearly explained to the community leaders, clearly explained to the recipients of the aid, has always worked.
MARGARET WARNER: Aid organizations are poised on the borders of Iraq, ready to go in as soon as it’s safe to do so.
MARGARET WARNER: And for more, I’m joined by Ross Mountain of the U.N.’S Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs; Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, a leading humanitarian group, or NGO; and retired Colonel Sam Gardiner, one of our regular military analysts. He has briefed administration officials on how to minimize the humanitarian consequences of this war. Welcome to you all.
Ross Mountain, let’s get an assessment first of all of the situation today in Iraq. How serious would you say the humanitarian needs are?
ROSS MOUNTAIN: I think Michael Marx was accurate in describing the view of the situation. There are certainly problems at this stage, pockets of need. But the major concern I think that we have is looking down the pike and the possibility that food supplies which are at the household level estimated for about three weeks to come, will run out. Then we are really going to be facing a humanitarian catastrophe.
MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking now about the food rations that people had under the old oil for food program and they got basically double rations to last them an extra month?
ROSS MOUNTAIN: That is what I’m alluding to the extra rations that they have are expected to last until roughly the end of this month. Following that time, we then start to worry about how the population is going to be fed. The population at large, and as mentioned the number of people who are regularly getting food was the total population. That is to say between twenty-five and twenty-six million people — a major task to replicate and ensure that that supply is forth coming.
MARGARET WARNER: Sam Gardiner what would you add to the assessment of the situation in Iraq?
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: I think I would add about its fragility. I was clear from the very beginning that we were going to be dealing with a difficult problem. Because of actually recovering from the last war, they haven’t done that, the sanctions had hurt the humanitarian situation, and decisions by the regime have hurt it. But it was from the electrical system, which is only half of what it was in 1991, and then the next thing that sort of connects to that which is really a worry for me about the future, and really is coming true now, is the water system. The water system was very fragile. They’re roughly 1500 small water plants in the space between Baghdad and the Kuwaiti border. They have generators, but they don’t work, the pumps burn out if the power fluctuates. We’ve had power outage in Baghdad, that’s not Baghdad, that’s the electrical grid, which tells me these power plants probably now have a large percentage of burned out water pumps so, the water up very soon.
MARGARET WARNER: And Ray Offenheiser, weigh in on this, how serious the situation is. And I know you all deal with waterish also lot.
RAY OFFENHEISER: We actually sent a team in prior to the on set of hostile teams to do an assessment, and one of the things we discovered was that there was something like a half million tons of raw sewage pumped into the rivers of Iraq that, you know, leaving them contaminated. So if the general population are forced to resort to going to the rivers for water, it could produce considerable impact on disease and on the public health situation. I think the other thing we’re concerned about is the, I guess you might call it the organizational infrastructure that under lies any humanitarian response.
One of the unique situations in Iraq that we face is that unlike Afghanistan where we had a large number of U.N. agencies in place and international humanitarian organizations in place to respond quickly, to providing both food and water and managing refugee camps, in the case of Iraq at the moment there is a very fragile and limited presence of the Red Cross, and only preliminary presence of some U.N. agencies and most of the international NGO’s were, as was said in your report, arrayed along the borders and will have to get set up and operating pretty quickly.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Mountain, what kind of relief operations are still going on, ether on the U.N. level or from what you know on the NGO level?
ROSS MOUNTAIN: From the U.N. side, we have evacuated as mentioned the international staff, but our national staff, some three and a half thousand people, are still in the country, and working pretty well full-time in the north, though in the central south it’s very much more patchy.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me interrupt you. Y working, what are they doing?
ROSS MOUNTAIN: The kind of thing they’ve been doing is been providing technical help in fixing the water aspects in a couple places, as the, one of your colleagues mentioned, we have been helping with food distributions and so on. But I must say that I don’t feel that we should over emphasize that in terms of the central south it’s been extremely difficult to operate because of the security situation. And the ICRC in particular has been bearing the brunt of much of the humanitarian work that is going on. I would like to add that in addition to the material damage that we’ve been talking about, we should be aware that the effect on the population, the civilian population that we’re obviously concerned about, is extraordinarily traumatic. If you’re having all these munitions bouncing around and exploding, you can imagine what this is likely to do to children, who in many cases are not in great health to start with.
MARGARET WARNER: Sam Gardiner, weigh in here on what’s being done now. For instance, we ran some video of this. The military is giving out something, some rations. How does that fit into the picture?
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Well, let me answer what’s going on in two ways. One of the things going on now is probably never been a military campaign where civilian targets were as avoided as now. And it wasn’t until just recently that we lost the power. So we have to keep that in mind. The passing out of rations, the military is sort of torn. They really don’t want to do food, they don’t want to do water. And there’s a reason for it. If they were passing out food at the airport outside Baghdad, the people would come there to be fed. You can’t have that. So they have this push-pull of wanting to establish some humanitarian dimension to the operation, and some of that is first, I mean it’s spin, it’s to show that there are, no, it is part of the hearts and minds campaign, that’s the more important thing. But it isn’t the substance of what has to be done.
MARGARET WARNER: In other words, this is just short of short term rations, this isn’t the relief effort.
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: That’s right. The relief effort I the thing we’re talking about that’s still in Kuwait.
MARGARET WARNER: That’s still stuck at the borders. Mr. Offenheiser, what would you add to what is going on in the country? For instance, are there still teams in the cities helping at the hospitals?
RAY OFFENHEISER: Very, very small representation from international organizations. For example, Doctors Without Borders, which would normally have a large presence I country like Iraq, I think has six physicians in Baghdad at the moment and otherwise has probably no representation in the center south and maybe some representation in the north. And similar things might be said about other agencies. On the food distribution, I might just comment, I think it’s important in the current situation under the fourth Geneva Convention for the military to assume some responsibility for feeding populations in what you might construe as insecure areas. But I think as we move forward and the military can secure areas and we can shift to a strong U.N. mandate and leadership role in delivery of humanitarian assistance, then we’ll provide the kind of space for civilian agencies to move in quickly and play the kind of role that they’re familiar with playing in other conflict situations in providing a very ordered and professional delivery of humanitarian assistance.
MARGARET WARNER: So when will NGO’s feel comfortable and safe enough to go back in?
RAY OFFENHEISER: I think the two conditions for us really are, one, secure areas, and we have to defer to the military leadership and what we hear from the U.N. on what in fact are secure — and then a handoff, a clear handoff and a mandate for the united nations, and particularly United Nations Office for Humanitarian Assistance, to take the lead in advising us in coordination of work between and among our agencies as to what roles we should play and what areas and meeting what needs. And organizations like Oxfam have already lent staff to go in with the first U.S. assessment teams once those secure areas are designated and we’re able to send personnel in.
MARGARET WARNER: And Mr. Mountain, and this gets into the dispute about who’s going to run the show, has your office been told by the U.S. administration that there will come a point when you will be asked to coordinate all the humanitarian aid, as in fact the NGO’s want you to do? In other words they want to work under your umbrella rather than be seen as somehow agents of the U.S. Government.
ROSS MOUNTAIN: We’re not looking for any invitation to come in. There seems to be a consensus across the international community that the United Nations should lead the humanitarian effort. And we are seeking to soon as possible, as the secretary general has pointed out, that we come in under the precepts of humanitarian assistance, that is to say respecting neutrality and impartiality, and on the bases of assessed needs so we can reach the vulnerable groups wherever they are as mentioned by our colleague from Oxfam, we need a basic level of security in order to be able to get in and access these populations. Until then, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, the military belligerents need to assume responsibilities. But we’re looking forward very much to getting into both the north and to government areas that have needs, and indeed behind coalition lines. We’ve already started in the south — but as soon as possible.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Sam Gardiner, from what you know about the U.S. Administration’s view, when are they going to be ready, even though Mr. Mountain says they’re not waiting for permission exactly, but the NGO’s are very worried about this, when do you think this handoff will happen?
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Well, I think the key is when the cities can be clean. That has not been an easy thing. The British have been fighting to clear Basra for a week. So you can project that in the numbers of cities, and the lines keep getting crossed, the need and time and this is going to, tension is going to raise over these.
MARGARET WARNER: Can you imagine that it could happen area by area? Are you saying the entire country?
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: No, I think in what is unfolding is from the south to north. But the needs began in parallel so, that you can see the suffering from the north to be worse.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you all three very much.