Basra worrying relief workers

  • Nation
  • Thursday, 27 Mar 2003

AMMAN: The wretched living conditions of some two million people in Iraq’s second largest city of Basra, which is under siege by American and British troops, is bleeding the hearts of relief agency workers here. 

They said thousands of civilians, especially children already facing severe malnutrition, were in grave danger of dying as one in four people were reported to be drinking sewage-contaminated water for the past six days. 

Supplies of food and medicine are also fast dwindling in Basra, declared a legitimate military target on Tuesday by American and British troops engaged in battle with Iraqi forces holed up inside the southern city. 

“There is a very real possibility in Basra now of deaths from diarrhoea and dehydration. We estimate that at least 100,000 children under the age of five are at risk,” Unicef communications officer Geof Keele said in his latest briefing. 

He said there must now be a threat of disease to tens of thousands of people in their homes, hospitals and care institutions in Basra. 

“People attempt to cope and find what water they can from the river and other sources. Unfortunately the river is also where sewage is dumped,” he added. 

World Health Organisation staff warned that there was a major risk of an outbreak of diarrhoeal diseases, including dysentery and cholera if the city went on for long without adequate clean water.  

In calling for urgent measures to avert a humanitarian disaster in Basra two days ago, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: “A city that size cannot afford to go without electricity or water for long. Apart from the water aspect, you can imagine what it does to sanitation.” 

Basra was jolted by air bombardments last Friday, knocking off generators and cutting power supply to the Wafa Al-Quaid water treatment plant, which provides 40% of the city’s needs and also feeds the Al Zubair Hospital. 

Currently, the plant is only partially functioning and no major humanitarian aid has been delivered to the people of Basra.  

Veronique Tareau, the spokesman for the Humanitarian Co-ordinator in Iraq, said the ground staff of ICRC, the UN and NGOs were carrying out temporary repairs to restore water and electricity while providing whatever assistance they could to the people of Basra. 

Charles Healy, a British government spokesman based in Jordan, said that work was under way to clear the port of Umm Qasr near Basra to allow vessels carrying humanitarian supplies to dock, thus opening a “relief corridor” to Basra and other parts of Iraq. 

US Army General Tommy Franks has also given a pledge to journalists in Qatar that critically needed humanitarian aid, food and water supplies disrupted by the fighting would be delivered to Iraq this week. 

However, he said American and British troops had to gain military control of Basra before this could be done. 

What appears clear to international relief agencies is that civilians are facing the brunt of the battle for Basra although the parties in the conflict are hoping to win the hearts and minds of the people. 

The Iraqi regular troops were said to be hiding out with ordinary people in carrying out a guerilla war against the American and British troops.  

American and British troops were fermenting a local rebellion in Basra so that fleeing Iraqi troops could be crushed easily in the open desert, according to relief agency workers. 

This, the workers say, could be done by delaying humanitarian aid, cutting off water and power supplies that would put pressure on the local people to rebel against Saddam Hussein’s paramilitary and regular troops now huddled in the city.  

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