Iraqi harvest up but half the people still hungry

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ROME, Italy, September 24, 2003 (ENS): Nearly half of the 26.3 million Iraqis are estimated to be poor and in need of food assistance says a report published today by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP). Northern Iraq is doing much better than any other part of the country.

The situation of mothers and children in central and southern Iraq is of particular concern warn the agencies in their food supply and nutrition assessment mission report. In the northern governorates, acute malnutrition has been virtually eliminated.

The World Food Programme estimates that 3.5 million Iraqi people will need supplementary food at a cost of $51 million in 2004. Food supplements are most needed for malnourished children, their family members and pregnant and nursing mothers, the WFP said.

Despite the lifting of economic sanctions, and a 22 percent better cereal harvest this year than in 2002, the two UN agencies report that some 60 percent of the Iraqi population is unemployed and depends largely on public food rations, financed through the oil-for-food-program.

The mission's report recognizes the need to continue the public food distribution system and relief food aid activities for the short to medium term, because the agriculture sector will need considerable time for rehabilitation.

"However, the highly subsidized food basket policy must be rethought and better targeted; it should eventually be gradually phased out," the report said.

The effects of war, economic sanctions and three years of severe drought, from 1999 to 2001, have eroded the base of livelihoods for Iraqis. "Any significant disruption of the public distribution system would have a severe negative impact on food access," the FAO/WFP report says.

Recent military and political incidents have had "a limited impact" on winter cereal crops, the agencies say, but the sowing of summer cereals and industrial crops such as cotton, sunflower seeds, have been affected.

The capacity to produce fertilizer nationally has been seriously reduced, UN assessment teams found. Two fertilizer factories are apparently not working, which raises the question of where next year's fertilizers will come from. The report says about 600,000 tons of fertilizers are needed for cereals alone next year.

"While starvation has been averted, chronic malnutrition persists among several million vulnerable people, including some 100,000 refugees and around 200,000 internally displaced people," the assessment says.

"Prices in the market have either doubled or tripled since March," Basra resident Luma Hussein told workers from the World Food Programme.

"We only have enough food to last a week - small quantities of rice, flour and some beans," Hussein said. "We did get the August food ration before the war but there was no wheat flour."

Water availability and sanitation are major problems for post-war Iraq. The report says that now a daily maximum of 70 liters of water per person is available to the five million inhabitants of Baghdad. "The situation is worse in the southern cities."

Although this year's cereal production in Iraq is forecast at 4.12 million metric tons, 22 percent higher than estimated in 2002, the two UN food agencies are calling for urgent rehabilitation of Iraqi agriculture and the provision of immediate food supplies to hungry Iraqis.

"Production increased mainly due to favorable rains in the North, increased irrigation and timely distribution of agricultural inputs in the main producing areas," according to the report, which said livestock conditions are "stable in most parts of the country," with good pastures in the north and grain availability.

The agencies estimate Iraq will have to import 3.44 million metric tons of grains in the 12 months from June 2003 to July 2004. Only 244,000 tons of that total will be covered food aid pledges.

"To the greatest extent possible, any additional food aid needs should be procured locally to support farmer's incomes and local prices," the agencies advised.

The mission recommended that the returns from oil sales be used for the development of the Iraqi economy through the recently established Development Fund for Iraq with "due consideration given to the agricultural sector."

FAO said that substantial assistance is required to rehabilitate agricultural infrastructure, including irrigation and local industrial agriculture, and to revitalize technical support structures and services.


Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2003. All Rights Reserved

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