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Relief Agencies Prepare for War with Iraq - 2003-03-13


While diplomats are debating the possibility of war in Iraq, relief agencies are working to avert a potential humanitarian crisis, both inside Iraq and in neighboring countries.

Jordan is preparing to play a key role in humanitarian relief operations, mainly as a transit point for aid going into Iraq.

Most aid agencies in Jordan do not expect a repeat of the 1991 Gulf War, when a massive flood of refugees arrived at the border. Still, two camps are being built to provide temporary shelter for Iraqis and to process non-Iraqi guest workers traveling on to their home countries.

The camps initially will be able to handle 10,000 people. But aid workers say the camps can be expanded quickly to accommodate more.

Christine McNab heads the United Nations Development Program in Jordan, and is coordinating preparations for humanitarian assistance. She says the infrastructure is already in place at the two camps. Access roads have been prepared and electricity installed. The problem of supplying water to the desert area where the camps are located has also been solved.

"We now have got the water supply organized," she said. "They have drilled deep wells. This is quite salty water, so we have put in a reverse osmosis machine that makes the water quite drinkable, and so we can supply quite a number of people. If we need more, we will have to truck it in. But, basically, the water supply problem is solved."

In an interview with VOA, Ms. McNab says a major concern would be the health of those arriving at the camp. "We know that there is still a very high level of malnutrition," said Christine McNab. "There is still a very high level of anemia among nursing mothers and pregnant women. And the health care has not been as good as it should be. So, the people who arrive are not in such good health as those who came a decade ago."

Jordan's Red Crescent organization says it is equipped to treat as many as 10,000 people in the first days of a conflict.

Director Mohammed Hadid says there are enough tents and medical supplies, but more ambulances and supply trucks will be needed. He says the uncertainty of what may happen makes the planning difficult. "Usually, you respond," he said. "A disaster takes place; you assess disaster, and you send an appeal. We don't have a disaster. We don't know what's going to happen. Everyone is [offering] different scenarios, so how are we expected to plan?"

Mr. Hadid cautions that Red Crescent workers and volunteers, for instance, are not prepared to deal with chemical or biological weapons injuries.

U.N. official Christine McNab says Jordan will also serve as a key transit point for supplying relief operations inside Iraq. 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million citizens depend on the supplies they get from the U.N.-sponsored oil-for-food program. U.N. agencies want to be ready to fill the void should that system be disrupted by war.

"So, what we've agreed with the government of Jordan is, we can use Jordan as a transit route," she said. "We will bring in goods through Aqaba [port], for example, and transit them through into Iraq. And this is the main concern, to very quickly get any emergency supplies, if there is a war."

Ms. McNab and Mr. Hadid both echo concerns of the aid community about the current low level of funding for relief preparations. They say many donor governments have been reluctant to commit money now, because they do not want to be seen as supporting a war they do not want.