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UN aid agencies step up supplies in Iraq but concerned over Baghdad's water

UN aid agencies step up supplies in Iraq but concerned over Baghdad's water

With growing concern now focusing on the water supply for the 5 million residents of Baghdad, United Nations relief agencies today reported "some hopeful and positive steps" in moving humanitarian aid into other parts of Iraq.

A small UN humanitarian assessment team went to the southern Iraqi port of Um Qasr to make a first evaluation of local water, sanitation and food needs, as well as the condition of the port there, which could be a major point for bringing in supplies.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) was sending six trucks to the outskirts of south Basra as part of its biggest convoy to date and the first time its operation has reached so far into the country, while a 19-truck World Food Programme (WFP) convoy with 475 tons of badly needed wheat flour was heading toward northern Iraq from Turkey.

In all, 11 trucks under contract to UNICEF from local Kuwaiti operators were making their way across the southern border with supplies for the towns of Safwan, Zubair and the southern fringes of Basra, including much needed water and emergency health kits, UNICEF spokesperson Wivina Belmonte told the daily briefing in Amman, Jordan, on UN humanitarian activities.

She said drivers from an earlier convoy to Zubair had a list of over 50 medicines that a health worker at the local hospital said children there needed. The health kit in today's delivery would provide drugs for 10,000 people for three months. The challenge was to get the aid to the children who needed it, wherever they may be in Iraq, she added.

Another 12 trucks were expected to reach northern Iraq from Turkey tomorrow, she said, while the WFP reported that its consignment was especially needed because the three Kurdish provinces there had not received their wheat flour rations in March.

Noting reports that Baghdad's electrical grid had gone down, Ms. Belmonte stressed UNICEF's concern with the water situation there. "We saw how quickly the humanitarian situation deteriorated in Basra, when electricity was cut there," she said. "Five million people depend on the water system for their daily needs - drinking, cleaning and cooking."

UNICEF's alarm was echoed by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq (UNHCOI) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

"The lack of electricity across the city poses a threat to the population the longer it continues, as water-pumping facilities without back-up generators or fuel to operate them cease functioning," UNHCOI deputy spokesman David Wimhurst said.

He noted that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) continued to provide clean water to hospitals and some water distribution stations in the suburbs of Baghdad and that repairs to water and power systems were also continuing.

WHO spokesperson Fadela Chaib said many people in Baghdad now lacked access to their regular supply of clean, safe drinking water in addition to the 1.5 million people reported by the ICRC to lack access to a safe water supply in southern Iraq.

This is extremely concerning, she said. As temperatures rise across Iraq, a shortage of clean water will almost inevitably cause outbreaks of diarrhoeal disease and other health problems.

Ms. Chaib also said WHO had received reports of growing numbers of civilian casualties in and around Baghdad, Basra and many other towns in southern and central Iraq. The ICRC reported a particularly disturbing situation in the town of Al Hillah, where some 300 people were reported injured with the hospital overwhelmed with patients and struggling to cope, she added.

It was clear that injuries suffered as a direct result of this conflict were the number one public health problem in Iraq today, with shortages of medical supplies looming as the sieges built up, Ms. Chaib said. Speeding up the delivery of medical supplies was therefore essential to build up a pipeline of emergency stocks.

On a more positive note, WFP Executive Director James Morris welcomed the international community's response so far to the agency's $1.3 billion emergency food appeal for Iraq, for which it received $260 million from the United States on Wednesday as well as contributions from Australia, Germany, Canada, Spain and New Zealand.

"This is the best possible start to the biggest single appeal in the WFP's 40-year history," he said in Rome. "We are extremely grateful to these nations' generosity."