UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
IRAQ: Food aid vital for 16 million people
ERBIL, 11 June 2003 (IRIN) - After living on monthly food rations for the last seven years, Nazdar Isma'il cannot imagine what her life would be like without the assistance.
"If the food rations were stopped tomorrow, I don't think I would be able to feed my four children," she shyly admits. "With the little money my husband makes as a taxi driver, we pay the rent, buy a few clothes, and the rest goes for medicine for the children. There is not much left over to buy food in the market," Nazdar told IRIN.
Although the World Food Programme (WFP) has said it will continue operating the monthly food-rationing system in Iraq for the next six months, the UN food agency has stressed that it wants the new administration to assume a greater degree of responsibility for food security soon.
According to remarks made by WFP's chief executive, James Morris, in recent weeks, the current overall distribution may be replaced by a programme targeting the "most vulnerable" or by "other mechanisms to ensure food security".
For beneficiaries like Nazdar, however, the uncertainty is cause for concern.
Two decades of war and stringent economic sanctions have eroded the coping mechanisms of poor households, and it is estimated that 16 million Iraqis are entirely dependent on the monthly "food basket" to stay alive. The 19-kg food basket comprises assorted commodities, including wheat, rice, pulses and vegetable oil.
"Of course we are concerned that any major change to the current food distribution may have a severe impact on communities. People don't have anything to replace it with. But right now our main task is getting the food we do have out of the warehouses and into people's homes," the WFP food monitor in Erbil, Thamir Siawsh, told IRIN.
Unlike in other parts of the country, where WFP suspended its operation because of the war, food distribution in the Kurdish-administered north has continued uninterrupted.
"We are now faced with a very different problem. Since the end of the war, we have received a huge quantity of wheat flour. We have to find ways of managing this flour so that it does not sit in the warehouses for too long," Siawsh said.
So far, only flour rations have been distributed. It is envisaged that other food commodities will follow in the coming weeks.
In the administrative city of Erbil, as in the rest of the country, an elaborate food distribution system has evolved.
After the 350-km journey from the Turkish border, food items are directly offloaded onto trucks at WFP warehouses located on the outskirts of Erbil. These trucks then make their way to food agents, who are conveniently located across the city and surrounding areas.
There are 2,959 food agents and 957 flour agents servicing Erbil's population of 650,000. The agent, often a corner-shop owner, acts as middleman between WFP and the local authorities.
Of the nominal 2.25 Iraqi dinars beneficiaries are each required to pay for the monthly ration, 0.6 of a dinar accrues to the agent. The rest goes to the local council, which uses it to subsidise the cost of transport from the warehouse to the agent.
Just two kilometres from the WFP warehouse, Mustafa Muhammad operates as a flour agent. "The little I make is just enough to cover the rent of this shop. In the past when people had jobs, they were not that interested in the rations. This gave many agents like myself the opportunity to sell the left-over flour in the market and make a little money to support their families. But now everyone needs the rations," he said.
Under the current six-month emergency operation, WFP said it planned to bring about 2.2 million mt of food commodities into Iraq.
Themes: (IRIN) Food Security
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