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Vulnerability in the face of conflict
This article was originally published in CASI's July 2002 Newsletter (View full contents)
With an American military planning document calling for "air, land and sea-based forces to attack Iraq from three directions" by early 2003, according to a report in the New York Times [‘U.S. plan for Iraq is said to include attack on 3 sides’, 4 July 2002], the prospects for civilian casualties of an invasion stretch beyond those who will be killed or injured as a direct consequence of military operations. Twelve years of economic sanctions have left the inhabitants of Iraq in a condition of high vulnerability to external shocks, such as international conflict or internal civil war.
Iraqi society is heavily dependent upon food imports. A centrally-controlled ration system has been operating as part of the ‘oil for food’ programme since 1997, distributed by the Iraqi government in the south and centre of the country under international monitoring, and by the World Food Programme in northern Iraq. Despite some efforts to begin purchasing Iraqi-produced items under the ‘oil for food’ programme – a plan which stalled due to lack of agreement between the United Nations and the Iraqi government – the ration consists almost entirely of items produced outside Iraq and imported into the country.
The majority of households obtain most of their food from this ration. A survey by Save the Children UK of the household economy through 2001 in the north of the country, Understanding Kurdish Livelihoods in Northern Iraq (January 2002), showed in detail the extent of the dependence on the ration. In northern Iraq, for the poorest households (which include some 20% of the total population), up to 90% of their food comes from this single source. For other households in the north, the ration provides over 60% of food intake.
Although Save the Children was able to survey only the population in the north, there is every reason to believe that their findings apply equally, if not more, to the south and centre of the country. As a spokesperson for the organisation said, "As bad as the situation is for the Kurds, all indications are that after nearly 11 years of sanctions, Iraqis living in south and central Iraq are even worse off [...] The fact is, sanctions – as they are currently being implemented – simply do not work. They have a disproportionate effect on those who are most vulnerable in Iraqi society – particularly children."
As a result, if the distribution of the ration ceases, even for relatively short periods, Iraqi households may lose most of their access to food. An interruption to the ration could be caused if routes into the country – particularly via the port of Umm Qasr at which humanitarian supplies enter the country – become inaccessible due to war. Alternatively, oil exports may be terminated, preventing Iraq from earning revenue to purchase the foodstuffs necessary for the ration. A third possibility is that internal distribution will be hampered, especially if the civil infrastructure within Iraq, such as the bridges, major roads and electrical infrastructure, is targeted, as in the 1991 Gulf War.
The high levels of poverty in Iraq since 1990 have left many families without savings or resources. The financial controls that have been part of sanctions mean that there is little money in the Iraqi economy and unemployment is at very high levels. Therefore, if there is an interruption to the ration system, and the price of foodstuffs increases in tandem with this, Iraqi households may not be able to purchase suitable amounts of food. As Save the Children states, "poor people could not afford to feed themselves if the SCR986 [i.e. the ‘oil for food’] ration was suddenly removed". Since approximately 60% of the Iraqi population live in towns and cities, most of these individuals would not be able to produce food either.
The provision of the ration has also resulted in a decline in agriculture in Iraq over the past five years. The Food and Agriculture Organisation record that rice production declined by 56% in the immediate aftermath of the commencement of the ‘oil for food’ programme. Wheat production declined by 42% over the same period. Even in rural areas, therefore, it is unlikely that the population could produce adequate amounts of food for their own adequate nutrition.
Sanctions have also impacted upon the civilian population’s vulnerability through the long-term deterioration of the electricity sector. The condition of the infrastructure has been brought out in a report from the Electricity Working Group to the UN Sanctions Committee of 20 November 2001. It reports that the "power management system is completely obsolete and non operational" and that the "interruption of power supply affects humanitarian facilities such as hospitals, water treatment plants and educational institutes". These problems are in part a consequence of the holds imposed by the UN Sanctions Committee over the length of the oil for food programme.
The Working Group reported that up to November 2001 the Committee had placed on hold for import into Iraq a greater value of goods in the electricity sector ($1.06 billion) than those that have actually arrived in Iraq under the entire oil for food scheme ($1.05 billion). Although the new procedures introduced by the Security Council in May 2002 will result in permission for many of these goods to enter Iraq, it will take a considerable amount of time to reverse the deterioration of this sector.
The water, sanitation and health system depends upon the maintenance of an effective electricity sector. In light of the acceptance by the US military that the electricity system is a legitimate target in war (as shown by their conduct in the 1991 Gulf War as well as subsequent conflicts), there is a severe threat to the well-being of ordinary Iraqis if the electricity grid is further damaged.
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