IRC Emergency Team Assesses Needs in Southern Iraq
We reached the first checkpoint near the Kuwait/Iraq border after a 90-minute drive north from Kuwait City. The highway cut through desert, largely empty save for the solitary camel and sheep herders and a couple of military convoys stretching a mile or more along a road baked by the unrelenting morning sun. It is clear that heat will be a major factor for the relief efforts in Iraq.
The IRC assessment team included Alan Manski, Logistics Coordinator, Jack Brooks, Environmental Health Coordinator, and me. As would be the case for the next half-mile and five checkpoints, two manned by Kuwait military and three by coalition forces, our documents were checked carefully against our identification papers and vehicle registration. There was some delay at the heavily armed demilitarized zone and entrance to Umm Qasr, an Iraqi port city of 40,000. But Alan, a veteran of numerous conflict zones and IRC postings, made a call to a contact at the Civilian Military Information Center (CMIC) across the border and we were waved through.
Immediately, the poverty in many parts of southern Iraq was apparent in the mud houses, bare feet and tattered clothing of the children. They ran alongside our vehicle, some asking for water, but most just waiving and shouting hello. There were many dozens of them, most curious and smiling, with a few of the older kids holding back, expressionless. We saw troops in army vehicles tossing water to the kids from open windows—something that made Jack concerned about broader questions of water distribution in Umm Qasr and surrounding areas. Soon we would learn how serious an issue this is.
Our purpose for this first trip was twofold. We wanted to test the border system and see how quickly we would be able to move in staff and supplies. Additionally, Jack wanted to begin looking at the water and sanitation needs in Umm Qasr and farther north, toward Az zubayr.
By and large, travel across the border went smoothly. We were all encouraged that access to areas deemed “permissive” (as opposed to the other two levels, “uncertain” and “hostile”) would not be a problem going forward.
Water conditions in Umm Qasr, however, were cause for concern. We drove to the town's water processing plant where Jack conducted tests for water purity. He found that it was dangerously high in salt content. We also learned from local residents that supplies were dwindling. Some men came on bicycles to fill plastic cans with water. They were frustrated and told us that their families were barely getting by. Those that can afford to buy water in Umm Qasr do so. But as we saw later in the day at one of the few water distribution points, most wait in long lines for water that comes off a tap from the mainline in a trickle. With many years of experience of working with local communities to provide clean water and sanitation, Jack observed "there seems to be plenty of water supply, but the distribution system is not getting it to the people.”
Water supply in rural areas is also a problem—one that dates back for a decade but has been made worse by the war. Driving north, away from Umm Qasr, we spoke with numerous farmers who were collecting brackish water from a break in a water pipe. One farmer led us across the road to his home. Scattered around his unharvested tomato fields, were unexploded cluster bombs, silver-grey in color and difficult to see. Children played nearby.
We soon reached the outskirts of Az zubayr, but turned back after learning that it was not safe to proceed. Indeed smoke was rising up from Basra in the distance.
As we returned to Kuwait, we talked about the children, and the inevitable trauma they are suffering from years of conflict. Bombings, water shortages, limited food supply, inadequate medical care, disrupted schooling, isolation from their friends, panicked parents. Many will experience depression, nervousness, aggression, nightmares, stuttering. UNICEF estimates that well over 500,000 children in Iraq will require counseling.
Among the members of five IRC emergency response teams deployed in the region are child protection experts who will quickly be able to work with local communities to design and implement formal and non-formal education and healing programs for kids. "Children are resilient" says Rebecca Winthrop who helps coordinate IRC programming for children in armed conflict. "But they need programs and expressive activities like art, drama and group discussions with peers,that help them come to terms with what has happened to them and their families in their own way,” she says. And she says classes must resume. “It’s critical that their sense of security and normalcy, is restored as quickly as possible.” In Kuwait, just-arrived from Ethiopia, IRC child trauma specialist Milen Kidane prepares to begin work in Iraq.
Immediately upon our return, Jack met with other water and sanitation specialists who are part of the USAID / Disaster Assistance Response Team and he’ll meet with representatives from UNICEF tomorrow. In the meantime, our regional coordinator, Zaki Khory, based in Amman, Jordan, is fine-tuning plans for water, sanitation, primary health care and child protection assistance, so that the moment conditions allow, IRC emergency teams will be ready to deliver aid.
Roberta Gately, a nurse from Boston and Emergency Response Team Health Specialist, summed up the feelings of all IRC staff in the region. "We're anxious and ready to provide essential assistance to war-affected Iraqi populations,” she said. “It’s frustrating knowing that such hardship and heart-breaking deprivation are so near, but in areas we still can't reach. But we'll get there soon and as soon as we do, we’ll work to meet the most pressing needs of Iraqi civilians.”