ICRC warns Iraq remains on critical list

Millions of Iraqis lack access to essential supplies such as safe drinking water Keystone

After five years of widespread violence in Iraq, the country is struggling to cope, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

This content was published on March 18, 2008 - 08:07

The Swiss-run organisation said on Monday that violence – including political murders and kidnappings, as well as the indiscriminate targeting of civilians by suicide bombers – is aggravating an already serious emergency.

In a statement, it described the humanitarian situation in Iraq as "among the most critical in the world", calling on all parties in the civil war to respect international law.

The Geneva-based organisation added that it would continue to pursue its agenda in the midst of the fighting.

"Rehabilitation is needed now. It's not needed in one year. It is needed immediately," ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan told swissinfo from Amman, Jordan.

According to the humanitarian organisation, the cost of clean drinking water has reached $50 (SFr50) per month in some areas – one third the average monthly income.

It has called for "regular access" to health services and public utilities but admits that much of what is needed to deliver essential services has been destroyed.

"It would be dangerous for people to get used to the current level of health services, which is far below the minimum required," said Pascal Ollé, the ICRC's health coordinator for Iraq.

"The health authorities are attempting to remedy the situation, but because the resources are scarce and the security situation is poor that will take some time."

Complex challenges

The killings, disappearances and emigration of skilled professionals have had a profound impact on reconstruction, according to the organisation. It cites Iraqi government figures indicating that more than 2,200 doctors and nurses have been killed and over 250 kidnapped since 2003.

The ICRC said that the thinning of Iraq's professional ranks and its weakened infrastructure can be traced to domestic policies coinciding with more than two decades of war and sanctions.

"The deterioration of healthcare facilities since 1980 is partly due to a failure to expand the facilities sufficiently to keep pace with population growth," it added.

Since 1990, the government has been unable to provide more than primary care – at the expense of public health programmes, training and maintenance of infrastructure.

Out of 34,000 registered doctors the same year, some 20,000 have quit the country, and those who have stayed behind operate under tough conditions.

The ICRC stated that the country's 30,000 public hospital beds are well short of the 80,000 required – and scarce resources and meagre incomes have placed the cost of treatment out of the average citizen's reach.

Iraq's population stands at nearly 27.5 million people – and the humanitarian body admits there is little hope of repatriating the ranks of medical professionals, engineers and other specialists who have left the country.

Hassan told swissinfo the ICRC will focus on those who have remained.

Among its short-term initiatives designed to alleviate some of the pressure, the organisation said it trained 80 Iraqi surgeons and provided supplies for 70 emergency rooms and 30 operating theatres in 2007.

swissinfo, Justin Häne

2007 aid

The ICRC said it distributed essential food aid to a total of 200,000 people in 2007 and that it supplied 16 Red Crescent branches in the country with relief items.

It added that micro-economic projects benefited more than 6,000 households.

Last year, it helped to shed light on the fates of 94 missing people, but says Iraq is in need of DNA experts to assist in ongoing investigations.

The organisation also visited around 5,000 detainees at 21 detention locations across the country.

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Clean water

The distribution of chlorine, essential for sterilising water, has been restricted on account that it can be used in bombs and other weapons.

The ICRC reports that many people illegally tap water lines at night, leaving shortages in certain areas. A cholera outbreak in 2007 was the result of contaminated water.

The ICRC says that its 144 water and sanitation projects in 2007 benefited over three million people.

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