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Half of Basra Lacks Water, EU Says

Reuters & Agence France Presse

BRUSSELS/AMMAN (April 1, 2003) - Half of the people in the besieged southern Iraqi city of Basra lack water, the European Commission said yesterday. Providing water remains the single most important problem in terms of humanitarian assistance, said a spokesman outlining the EU executive's aid activities for Iraq. "The most serious situation is in Basra, where half the people have no water," Javier Menendez Bonilla, describing conditions for Basra's 1.2 million-strong population as "worrying."

Basra has been besieged by US and British troops for the last week. British commandos yesterday were pursuing a major assault on the southern port city. Providing water has also become a problem in other parts of southern Iraq and west of Baghdad, after repeated power cuts and bombardments, said the spokesman. The commission has asked for a total of 100 million euros ($109 million) in urgent aid for Iraq to be unblocked from EU coffers.

However, a top EU official in Amman said yesterday an enthusiastic response by EU states to an appeal for Iraq humanitarian aid means the European Union will spend 327 million euros ($352 million) to help Iraqis through the war. Robert van der Meulen, head of the European Commission in Amman, said member states have pledged around 227 million euros, above and beyond this month's decision by the commission to spend 100 million euros on relief for Iraq.

"We already have a steady stream of aid flowing into Iraq since 1991, but in light of the worsening situation now, we need to move in more money as soon as possible to support the Iraqi people," van der Meulen told Reuters in an interview. Britain, Spain, France and the Netherlands were the main contributors, he added.

The EU's executive commission earlier this month announced it had allocated 21 million euros for Iraq and would ask the European Parliament and member states to endorse a request for additional 79 million euros from the EU's emergency reserves.

Van der Meulen said he expected a decision to be taken in early April to release the 79 million euros.

So far 21 million euros has already been committed to ensure basic items such as medical supplies, tents, blankets and food are available for displaced Iraqis. The funds would be disbursed by ECHO, the Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office which channels aid through various non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

ECHO was considering Jordan as a main aid corridor to take relief supplies into Iraq, as aid agencies needed quick access to civilians caught in the conflict, van der Meulen said. "We are in consultations with Jordanian authorities on such an aid corridor as we anticipate a difficult situation in Baghdad and other parts of the country ahead of us," he said.

Aid organizations already inside Iraq had limited access and faced security problems, commission officials in Brussels said. "They have so far been able to operate perhaps with a limited capacity and we have seen security difficulties inside Baghdad, for instance to visit hospitals to carry out assessments," said Javier Menendez Bonilla, who is in charge of the commission's aid operation in Iraq.

The main concern of Commission aid officials in Brussels was the lack of access to water in southern parts of Iraq, especially Basra where they said 50 percent of population has no water, they told reporters. The food situation looked better, they said, mainly because the UN's oil-for-food program had distributed enough food before it was suspended to feed people for up to eight weeks.

The United Nations food aid agency expressed optimism yesterday that it could avert a major crisis in what it called its greatest challenge ever to feed the people of Iraq. "We have enough supplies. We will be able to meet the needs," James Morris, executive director of the UN World Food Program, told a news conference in London.

The WFP has appealed for $1.3 billion to fund a vast food aid operation in response to the Iraq war. This is part of an overall $2.2 billion appeal for all humanitarian assistance for Iraq in the coming six months launched by the UN last week.

The WFP has bought over 120,000 tons of flour for Iraq, apparently its first move after a $1.3 billion appeal for food aid operations, a trade source said in Rome yesterday.

Meanwhile, security concerns at the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr are holding up two shipments of Australian wheat intended as aid, officials said yesterday. "Security is still a key issue in holding it up and at this stage we don't have information on when it will be safe enough for those ships to get in to Umm Qasr," AusAID spokeswoman Jo Elsom told AFP in Sydney. "We are still working as quickly as we can. Obviously it's still a war zone and very complex to organize."

The ships are each carrying 50,000 tons (55,000 short tons) of wheat supplied by Australian monopoly wheat exporter, AWB, which is honoring contracts signed with Iraq before war broke out.



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