Food Agency Faces Monumental Task

2003/3/26 UN worker stacks WFP wheat bags in warehouse, Jordan, photo
The U.N.'s World Food Program faces its biggest challenge ever in feeding the Iraqi people after the U.S.-led war ends, and plans to mount an enormous aid operation, the agency's director said Monday.

World Food Program director James Morris told reporters he believed the agency would be able to effectively distribute food once the fighting in Iraq is over, but said that a very long conflict would force his workers to draw up new plans.

The United Nations appealed Friday for $2.2 billion in emergency aid for the Iraqi people, including more than $1 billion, which the WFP needs to feed most of Iraq's population for the first six months after the war's end.

Morris said that in the months preceding the start of fighting, U.N. and Iraqi officials had distributed extra rations to Iraqis, which he said meant most people had enough food to get through four to seven weeks without additional help.

On Sunday, Marines from the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in southern Iraq contributed to the humanitarian effort by rolling out on a mission to capture the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, CBS News reports.

At a small village, the Marines unloaded hundreds of food packages.

With the Marines still waiting for their logistics trains to catch up, much of the work in southern Iraq in the next few days will focus on the humanitarian relief.

There is not yet a crisis in the area of subsistence farming, but as CBS News reports, as the war rolls on toward the bigger towns and cities, the need is expected to rise.

"The longer the conflict, it will make the work more difficult," Morris said, adding that the United Nations would not send humanitarian workers into areas where there is fighting. "If this goes on for a long period of time, the dynamics change, but I'm optimistic ... that we have a plan that we can avert massive starvation, we can avert massive humanitarian catastrophe."

While fighting continues, feeding needy civilians will be the responsibility of Iraq, America and Britain, he said. Aid workers have so far been unable to move beyond the Gulf port city of Umm Qasr and fan out deeper into Iraq because of intense fighting. Apart from short-term relief that is distributed by soldiers on the move, little aid is now reaching Iraqis.

For the first month after war ends, the WFP will focus on the needs of refugees and those displaced within Iraq, Morris said. During the next three months the agency will use Iraq's existing food distribution system to feed the country's entire population of 27 million, he explained.

The last two months of its mission will be a winding down period in which aid workers will focus on the needs of several million of the most vulnerable Iraqis, particularly refugees, Morris said.

The operation will be enormous, undertaken as the WFP deals with serious humanitarian problems around the world, from southern Africa to North Korea, he said.

"This is an extraordinary time for the World Food Program," Morris said. "To suddenly put the responsibility for issues in Iraq on our agenda will be probably the greatest challenge we've ever had. ... This is a massive undertaking."

He said the effort to feed Iraq would cost $1.3 billion over the next six months and said officials believed about $270 million of that would come from the U.N. oil-for-food program.

The rest must be raised from donors, Morris said, adding that Britain had made a large donation, Australia had promised 100,000 metric tons of food and America would soon contribute a substantial amount of food.

Morris said distribution in Iraq would dwarf the scale of the WFP's operations during and after the conflict in Afghanistan, adding that operations would be staged from Iran, Turkey, Syria and Jordan, among other countries.

He said Iraq's needs should not be allowed to distract world attention from humanitarian crises in other parts of the world, particularly southern Africa, where he said more than 40 million people were at risk of serious hunger.