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Basra: UN agencies scramble to bring relief

Iraq: UN agencies scramble to bring relief, with special concern over Basra

Local employees of United Nations relief agencies fanned out inside Iraq and around its borders today to bring aid to the civilian population, with particular concern focused on the country's second city, Basra, where lack of water has raised the spectre of disease for its 1.7 millions residents, especially 100,000 children under the age of five.

"There must now be a threat of disease as tens of thousands of people in their homes, hospitals and care institutions attempt to cope and find what water they can from the river and other sources," UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) spokesman Geoffrey Keele told a briefing in Amman, Jordan, on the UN's relief activities. "Unfortunately, the river is also where sewage is dumped."

Noting UNICEF's role as the lead agency for water in the emergency and that this was the third day Basra was reported to be without water because of frequent power cuts, he said: "As UNICEF has warned, bad water costs lives, especially among the most vulnerable. And the children of Iraq are some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

"Not only are they suffering from high rates of malnutrition, in Basra there is the very real possibility now of child deaths, not only from the conflict, but from the additional effects of diarrhoea and dehydration. We estimate that at least 100,000 children under the age of five are at risk."

UNICEF is looking at ways to provide emergency water supplies as soon as conditions allow and is also at work in Baghdad focusing on the urgent need for clean water in the capital's hospitals, Mr. Keele said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) added its voice to the concern, warning that the health situation could deteriorate quickly. It said teams from the International Committee of the Red Cross had managed to restore service for some 40 per cent of the population but that would only partially and temporarily cover needs.

Re-hydration is one of the most efficient and cost-effective measures against diarrhoea-related diseases, the second cause of mortality among children under the age of five, WHO spokesperson Fadela Chaib said, but the use of re-hydration salts requires clean water. In similar past situations in Iraq, diarrhoea diseases have accounted for 25 to 40 per cent of deaths during the acute phase of the emergency, with 80 per cent of deaths in under-two-year olds. Women and children will be the most affected group, she added.

The UN High Commissioner for the Refugees (UNHCR) said mobile teams based from the southwestern Iranian city of Ahwaz were monitoring the crossings from Iraq because the grim situation reported in Basra. Spokesman Peter Kessler said that further north along the frontier, a UNHCR team based in Khermanshah was visiting the Khosravi crossing today to check the frontier, following reports of attacks inside Iraq.

To the far north of Iraq, he said an eight-truck UNHCR convoy of relief items reached Silopi in southeastern Turkey this morning. Eight thousand mattresses from a regional stockpile at Iskenderun were being unloaded at the Red Crescent warehouse.

But no refugee movements were reported in the last 24 hours, he added.

For its part, the World Food Programme (WFP) said 19 trucks carrying about 380 tons of food offloaded their shipment in a warehouse in Erbil, where local staff are still working, for distribution under a nutrition programme in the northern provinces. Spokesman Khaled Mansour said the situation there was described as quiet but tense. People who had left Erbil because of the conflict were returning, he added.

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