Beginning With the Basics:
Food and Water for Iraq
By Steven Ehrenberg

U.S. Army soldiers fill a family's water barrel at a water distribution point in Kandari, Iraq. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Defense)

Adnan Abdul Zahra sells cigarettes to support his wife and three children in Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq. His sales bring him about 50 dinars a day, or about two-and-a-half cents. This isn't enough to feed himself, let alone his whole family.

The United Nations, the United States, and many international organizations are working hard to provide relief supplies to millions of Iraqis like Zahra and his family. It's a huge task, especially with the continuing violence. The biggest problem facing relief workers is not delivering the supplies—it's ensuring the safety of relief workers in Iraq.

"Security is the major issue," said Gordon Weiss, a spokesman for the UN International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). "That being said, there are some really good, solid programs going on."

Food

The World Food Program (WFP) solicits and distributes food donations from countries around the world.

"We're moving almost 1,000 tons [of food] per hour into Iraq," said spokesperson Trevor Rowe. It's the largest food-aid operation in history—and it's more than enough food for the entire Iraqi population.

The food is shipped by the WFP to Iraq's neighbors, where it's loaded onto trucks and driven to Iraqi warehouses. More trucks carry the food from the warehouses to central locations throughout the country. The food is then taken from there to a network of shopkeepers in each city.

"Every family registers for the rations, and families go once a month to pick up their food," said Antonia Paradela, a WFP spokesperson in Iraq. "They don't have money to go to the supermarket, or to the grocery store. Sometimes they sell a bit of this food if they are poor, to buy fruit and vegetables."

A food ration provides enough for one person per day to survive. It contains wheat and flour, rice and beans, sugar, milk, salt, tea, and soap.

The WFP plans to deliver about 2.2 million tons of food into Iraq by October—the same amount it delivered to the entire world last year.

Water

People need clean water to survive. In fact, humans can go much longer without food than they can without water. In Basra, as well as other Iraqi cities, fewer than half of their residents can turn on the faucet and drink what comes out.

UNICEF is in charge of restoring clean water to Iraq. It sends more than 100 tankers a day to deliver the water, and tons of chemicals and powders to clean it. In the meantime, plans are under way to fix broken treatment plants, pumping stations, and pipes.

Weiss described the difficulty of repairing the water system in Iraq to Scholastic News Online.

"If you trace [the water pipe] back, the first problem will be a broken water pump," he said. "Maybe it's been looted; perhaps it's been damaged during the war; perhaps they have no electricity. If you trace the pipe back further, you get to the pumping station. It may no longer have the chemicals to cleanse the water—because the chemicals have been stolen or damaged.

"If we trace the pipe back to the electricity station, [we find that] it's been looted or damaged, or it's run out of fuel. If we trace that problem even further back, we come to the ministry of power and water—and we find that the building has been bombed or looted. Or we find that people haven't turned up for work.

"The health of a child is at the end of a very long pipe, and at the end of that pipe you get water coming out," said Weiss. "The water is either good or bad. What we're getting at the moment is a lot of bad water and a rise in the number of children who are sick."

Humanitarian organizations are managing to make a dent in the problem of providing food and water to what was once a rich country. Before the war, Adnan Abdul Zahra depended on rations from the Iraqi government to eat. Now he and millions of his fellow Iraqis must depend on the rest of the world—at least until his country is stronger economically.