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Residents in Basra could die of thirst without relief supplies

Friday, March 28, 2003

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- U.S. and British troops must soon open a secure route for providing food and water to southern Iraq or the humanitarian crisis there will spiral into catastrophe, aid groups warned yesterday.

Humanitarian relief organizations say they are particularly worried about the situation in Iraq's second largest city, Basra, where many of the residents have gone without water or electricity for the past week. Efforts by coalition forces to bring supplies to the area were stymied again yesterday because of continuing street battles and mines found in the port of Umm Qasr, where ships loaded with cargo are poised to dock.

Desperate from dehydration, many Basra residents are drinking water directly from the city's rivers, which are full of untreated sewage. This could lead to outbreaks of cholera and dysentery, illnesses that can quickly turn fatal, especially for young children and the elderly.

The situation in Basra is exacerbated by a lack of electricity. Some hospitals have no light, and their machines sit idle. The water treatment plant is running, thanks to generators operated by the International Committee of the Red Cross, but only at 60 percent of capacity. The generators must be turned off regularly for refueling or cooling.

Roberta Cohen, a human rights specialist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., thinks only "a few more days" remain to deliver aid before people begin dying in Basra.

"You have to make it safe to distribute supplies and to get humanitarian workers in," Cohen said. "What you have now is a race against time to position supplies and humanitarian workers to go in there."

Relief workers are particularly concerned about children in Basra. Officials of the United Nation's Children's Fund estimate that up to 100,000 under the age of 5 are at immediate risk.

"The truth is the world does not have a very clear picture of the humanitarian impact of the fighting," said Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF. "There is a disturbing lack of focus on the civilian population."

Relief groups have appealed for donations, and initial results have been promising: Oxfam America, for example, received $641,000 over six days from 8,400 Internet users. They were responding to an e-mail sent out by MoveOn.org, an antiwar group.

"This unprecedented outpouring of support via the Internet will go far in aiding the innocents caught in this conflict," said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America. "We now know the Internet can be a major tool to raise funds for the major humanitarian work to come.

"We have just scratched the surface in the depth of relief needed while the war wages on. When the war ends, it will take a monumental effort just to begin repairing and rebuilding the lives of millions of children, families and senior citizens in Iraq."

Humanitarian groups say that while the people in southern Iraq desperately need clean drinking water, they aren't yet starving, probably because food supplies were stockpiled in preparation for war. That could change if the war drags on. When the fighting started last week, the United Nations suspended its "oil for food" program, which had provided the main sustenance for 60 percent of Iraq's people.

"To date, the agency has no reports of extreme food shortages in the areas of conflict in southern Iraq," said Khaled Mansour, a spokesman for the United Nations World Food Program. "The World Food Program believes that most of the Iraqi families who are totally dependent on monthly food aid rations for survival have sufficient food reserves to last until the end of April."

WFP officials say the biggest humanitarian operation in history may be needed to feed Iraqis after the war, at an estimated cost of $1 billion over six months.

The shortage of clean drinking water is the most urgent problem, in part because southern Iraq is so hot.

"People can go longer without food than they can without water. You can die of dehydration within three days," said Sid Balman, Jr., a spokesman for InterAction, an alliance of 165 U.S.-based international development and humanitarian relief groups.

People in Baghdad have been able to dig wells in case the main water system is destroyed. But in Basra, which is connected by waterway to the Persian Gulf, the ground water is too salty for human consumption. It is therefore vital to restore electricity to Basra's main water treatment plant, which filters the water and then pumps it into elevated storage tanks for distribution through the city's water pipes. A shortage of electricity in Basra means a shortage of clean drinking water.

Utility systems weren't in particularly good shape in Basra even before the war. The city was hit hard during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and has received little help from Baghdad since then because it is home to Shiite opponents of Saddam Hussein.

"Unless something can be done very, very quickly, it will be a humanitarian disaster," said Tor Valla, chief water engineer for Norwegian Church Aid. "People will become weaker and weaker as they are unable to keep food in their stomachs [because of diarrhea caused by tainted water]. And then people will die."

Valla is part of a five-man team that will be deployed to Basra as soon as coalition forces can secure the city. The group hopes to bring six mobile water purification units to Basra to provide safe drinking water until the city's main water treatment plant is fully restored.

"I can only hope that our worst scenarios will not be a reality," Valla said.

Karen MacPherson can be reached at kmacpherson@nationalpress.com or 1-202-662-7075.

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