NEW YORK – If a war begins in Iraq, unsanitary water may be one of the biggest threats to the civilian population, according to an official with CARE International.

Margaret Hassan, the humanitarian agency’s Iraq program officer, said 60 percent of the Iraqi people don’t have access to clean water – a factor that is already a major cause of death among Iraqi children.

Hassan spoke Jan. 29 with Mennonite Central Committee staff about the implications for civilians of an American-led invasion. Hassan, who is British, has lived in Iraq for 30 years and has been working with CARE since 1992. MCC supports CARE’s work in Iraq, which includes helping Iraqi families with access to health care and clean water. Water plants and pumping stations refurbished through CARE International benefit more than 2 million Iraqis.

One of the first targets in an invasion would be the country’s electrical infrastructure, which was decimated by coalition bombing during the first Gulf War in 1991. This would be devastating to Iraq’s already ailing water and sanitation systems, Hassan said, leading to outbreaks of dysentery and other illnesses.

Fuel stations also would be knocked out, leaving people without a viable means of transportation.

“[Iraqis] know what war is like,” Hassan said. “But this is not 1991 all over again. In ’91 people had money.”

With 12 years of economic sanctions behind them, Hassan said, many Iraqis have been forced to sell their personal assets – furnishings, jewelry, appliances – to make ends meet. Additional hardships caused by war could be even more devastating, Hassan said.

Hassan said she recently met a teacher who had sold all of his furniture and purchases second-hand clothing for his family on credit. His daughter dropped out of school because the family couldn’t afford appropriate clothing.

Food is also at a premium for many Iraqis. Much of the population depends on monthly food rations distributed by the Iraqi government. Currently the government is giving two months worth of rations so people can stock up in advance of an invasion.

MCC’s support for CARE dates back to the mid-1990s. Most recently, MCC contributed $15,000 toward CARE’s purchase of large water “bladder” tanks. These are made from a polymer material and hold between 200 and 250,000 liters of liquid. These portable tanks can be crucial to providing clean water to hospitals and elsewhere, Hassan said.

CARE also will receive at least 10,000 relief kits that MCC plans to ship to Iraq this spring. The supplies in the kits – towels, soap, detergent, toothpaste, toothbrushes, bandages and buckets – will be needed in Iraq regardless of war, Hassan said, noting that many Iraqi children have never seen a toothbrush.

CARE plans to distribute the kits to hospitals and other institutions that serve people in need.

Hassan commended MCC for speaking out against the United Nations-initiated sanctions, and for sending humanitarian aid to the country.

“The support we’ve felt from Mennonites is phenomenal and important,” Hassan said.
On Jan. 31 MCC signed a letter urging the U.N. Security Council to look at the effects of an Iraqi war on noncombatants and children in Iraq.

“As international humanitarian agencies responding globally to need, we are deeply concerned that the Council is consistently overlooking the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of potential military intervention, particularly on children,” the letter read.

Used by permission from Mennonite Weekly Review.

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