Tanks & Troops Storm through Farmlands:
A Bad Season for War in Hungry Iraq
AMMAN, Jordan (March 22, 2003) - As US tanks and troops push up the Euphrates River valley toward Baghdad, they'll be rolling through a vast green plain whose hard-pressed farmers should be planting their spring vegetables and harvesting their winter grain. An Iraqi farmer's almanac would tell you it's the wrong season for war.
The upheaval of an invasion could interrupt the reaping and the sowing just as stored food is running out for most Iraqis. "It's a particularly bad time for both the winter crop and the spring crop," said Barry Came, a UN food specialist. The Iraqi government's food-rationing system, the daily sustenance for most of its people, is crumbling. That, along with the wartime threat to the grain crop, points toward a huge emergency in the coming weeks, requiring possibly "the biggest humanitarian operation in history," said Khaled Mansour, regional spokesman for the UN World Food Program in Amman.
In these early days of war, lines of responsibility for carrying out that operation remain unclear.
US Gen. Tommy Franks said Saturday that the US military, its coalition partners and civilian organizations have positioned millions of meals, medicines and other supplies for the Iraqi people.
Earlier, the US government announced it was shipping 200,000 tons of wheat and rice for distribution in Iraq under the US Agency for International Development. Mansour said he assumed - but couldn't confirm - that WFP would do the distributing, since it has the framework in place.
"There are so many unknowns," he said. "The length of the war, the intensity, the state of the roads, the state of storage silos. It will be a logistician's nightmare."
An internal UN document on the war's expected impact predicts that railways, roads, bridges and electricity production "can expect to be especially hard hit" by air bombardment and ground combat. That could cripple the farm economy, although so far the US military may be minimizing attacks on such targets to help postwar recovery.
Labor could prove an even bigger problem: Farm families and field workers may be uprooted or flee ahead of advancing troops, or in civil unrest that follows, leaving fields fallow and crops to rot.
Under the United Nations' oil-for-food program, an arrangement for easing the impact of 12 years of UN economic sanctions, the Baghdad government exported oil and bought food and other humanitarian goods under close UN supervision. Some 400,000 tons of food were imported each month, and distributed through 43,000 authorized shops.
But now, "the warehouses are almost empty," Mansour said.
With Iraq's economy impoverished by the sanctions, 60 percent of its estimated 27 million people depended on government rations, the typical food basket consisted of wheat flour and rice, vegetable oil, lentils or other beans, milk, sugar and salt. But with the onset of war, the program was shut down.
Food warehouse stocks had already dwindled because of earlier problems, including delays in UN contract approvals, Mansour said. Meantime, the Iraqi government, preparing for war, doubled people's ration cards recently, to be exchanged for two months of food at local shops.
Because of distribution shortcomings and the fact that many poorer Iraqis sold their rations for needed cash, the WFP believes most Iraqis have food not for two months, but for less than six weeks.
In a country where child malnutrition and illness worsened after the first Gulf War and had begun to decline only in recent years, relief officials are again deeply worried.
"We know the level of fragility of the Iraqi people," Veronique Taveau, of the UN humanitarian coordinator's office in Baghdad, said Tuesday after leaving the Iraqi capital.
Came, who works for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, said Iraqi farmers should be planting tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, okra, cauliflower, carrots and other vegetables, the favored cash crops in the irrigated southern countryside.
By next month, they should be harvesting their winter wheat and barley. That grain crop was projected at 1.7 million tons nationally, a third of it from four Euphrates and Tigris river provinces south and southeast of Baghdad. "Iraqis depend on that crop to feed themselves," Came said.