The U.N. World Food Program says it is accelerating plans to get humanitarian aid into Iraq, in case there is a disruption of the United Nations' oil-for-food program.
Officials at the World Food Program warn that a breakdown of the U.N. oil-for-food program in Iraq could have a catastrophic effect on millions of Iraqi civilians. Agency officials say most of the people in the country are already in a very vulnerable condition after 12 years of economic sanctions.
The spokeswoman for the World Food Program, Christiane Berthiaume, says about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people are totally dependent for their survival on food rations from the U.N. program.
"If, in the eventuality of hostilities, this program would be interrupted, it would be a very serious matter," Christiane Berthiaume said. "We hope that if it is interrupted, it would resume quickly. If not, that would mean that many, many people would be in need of food aid. And, here, we are talking about millions of tons of food for millions of people."
Under the oil-for-food program, Iraq, in exchange for the oil it exports, buys 430,000 tons of food every month. If this program is interrupted by war, the World Food Program estimates, the country would only have six weeks of food reserves.
Christiane Berthiaume says her agency has appealed for almost $24 million for its war preparations, but has so far received only $7 million.
In order to get emergency supplies into countries bordering Iraq, Ms. Berthiaume says, the agency has had to dip into its emergency fund and borrow food from other operations in the Gulf region.
But Iraq is not the World Food Program's only concern. Ms. Berthiaume says that with world attention fixed on Iraq, people in need in other countries are being overlooked, especially in Africa.
"For WFP, one of our big concerns is that everybody will be focusing on Iraq and will be forgetting Africa, where there are at least 40 million people that are in dire need of food and are stricken by starvation," she said. "We have already very big problems in Ethiopia and Eritrea. In Ethiopia, we have 11 million people that are threatened by hunger. And if we do not have new contributions, and quickly, at the end of June, we will have nothing to distribute to these people."
Ms. Berthiaume says, as bad as the situation is in Ethiopia, the people of Eritrea may be even worse off. After four years of drought, over two million people, out of a population of a little more than four million are solely dependent on food from the World Food Program. The WFP says its food supplies will run out at the end of April, unless it receives more money soon.