What the New UNICEF Study Shows
by Ramzi Kysia
November 22, 2002
UNICEF just released statistics showing a significant improvement in the nutritional status of children in Iraq. According to the figures, over the last two years chronic malnutrition has declined by 23%, and acute malnutrition has declined by almost 50%.
The improvement is visible. At the hospitals I’ve visited, particularly in Central and Northern Iraq, wasting diseases such as kwashiorkor and marasmus are no longer pandemic. And while doctors throughout Iraq continue to report shortages in essential medicines and equipment, pediatric cancers have replaced malnutrition as their chief complaint. Despite these improvements - UNICEF figures show that over 1 in 5 Iraqi children remain malnourished. Our work isn’t over yet.
There are several reasons why malnutrition has declined - almost all due to busting sanctions. One reason is, fairly obviously, because more food is available. In December 1999, the UN lifted the limit it had placed on Iraqi oil sales through the Oil-for-Food program, and in early 2000 exempted food from the security review process. This allowed Iraq to import more food, more quickly, and distribute it to families in need. Of the $24.2 billion in supplies Iraq has been allowed to import under the Oil-for-Food program to date, almost $10 billion has arrived in just the last year - allowing the Iraqi government to increase the food ration they provide to everyone in Iraq.
The last two years have also brought good rainfall, ending the previous drought in Iraq, and providing bumper crops. This not only increased the supply of food available in local markets, but brought down prices as well, allowing some families to supplement their ration at local markets. However, the ration still represents the only source of food for a majority of families, and, for many, their sole source of income as well. Sanctions still prevent the Iraqi government from spending its own money within the country. As a result, only dry goods, imported from outside the country, can be included in the food ration. The increased ration still does not contain any fresh fruits or vegetables, or animal protein.
Recent, illegal trade agreements between Iraq and its neighbors, and increased smuggling, have also impacted nutrition by bringing more goods and hard currency into the country. According to a September 2002 overview of the nutritional status of Iraqi children, UNICEF reports that “[m]ajor shifts in Security Council Resolutions and government of Iraq regional trade policies are among the basic factors that have improved child malnutrition in the South/Centre [of Iraq].”
Additionally, the Iraqi government, in conjunction with UNICEF, has built 2,800 Community Child Care Units (CCCUs), staffed by almost 13,000 Iraqi volunteers, in order to provide nutritional assessment, counseling, and therapy to children in need. These units now screen an average of 1.1 million children every year.
Without safe drinking water, children contract chronic diarrhea and are unable to absorb nutrients, so improvements in essential civilian infrastructures have also had an effect on malnutrition. Electricity is necessary to run water and sanitation plants, and Iraq has reduced its electrical deficit from 3000 megawatts in 1996 to 900 megawatts today. Iraq has also been able to increase the availability of potable water in urban areas to almost 2/3 of what it was in 1990. This has led to a reduction in diarrhea cases among children under the age of 5. But it’s not all good news. According to the “Profile of Women and Children in Iraq (UNICEF, April 2002), “Diarrhea leading to death from dehydration and acute respiratory infections together account for 70% of child mortality in Iraq. An Iraqi child suffers an average of 14.4 diarrhea spells a year, an almost 4 fold increase from the 1990 average of 3.8 episodes. During the same period, typhoid fever increased from 2,240 to over 27,000 cases.”
Despite repeated denials by every UN agency and NGO working in Iraq, the U.S. continues to claim that the only reason people are suffering under sanctions is because of their government. However repressive that government may be, the programs Iraq has put in place to deal with malnutrition, and the improvements that have resulted, should finally put to rest U.S. allegations about Iraqi “interference” in the functioning of the Oil-for-Food program.
Unfortunately, recent improvements are likely to be short-lived. There is currently a multi-billion dollar shortfall in the money available for the Oil-for-Food program. In order to stem the “crumbling” of sanctions, the U.S. has begun enforcing a policy on oil sales called “retroactive pricing.” Under this policy, purchasers of Iraqi oil are not allowed to know the price of the oil they have bought for up to a month after they’ve received it. Given the volatility of the oil market, this uncertainty has led to steep declines in sales. According to the UN Development Program’s June 2002 brief for Iraq, “the Oil-for-Food Programme is increasingly facing a financial crisis due to the substantial drop in revenues received from Iraqi oil exports and to uncertainties regarding the pricing mechanism.” If this crisis isn’t quickly reversed, the program will falter, and malnutrition rates will again begin to rise.
The other major problem on the horizon is the war George Bush keeps promising to deliver. If the U.S. bombs electrical plants, and water and sewage treatment centers in Iraq, as was done during “Desert Storm,” the result is going to be even greater epidemics than Iraq is currently suffering from. If civil war breaks out, or if the U.S. bombs roads, rail, and all the bridges, as was done during “Desert Storm,” the result will be country-wide famine.
Iraq began food rationing prior to the Gulf War, when sanctions were first imposed. The Iraqi government only accepted the restrictions on its sovereignty imposed by the Oil-for-Food program when it became clear in 1995 that internal stores were no longer able to meet the crisis caused by sanctions. This distribution of food, to 24 million people on a monthly basis for over 12 years, is one of the most massive, logistical operations in world history. How well this program could work, during the middle of a war and invasion, is not something we should want to discover.
If we care about the children of Iraq, then we need to stop this war from happening. But, in the end, the only thing that will truly end Iraq’s humanitarian crisis, and put an end to malnutrition once and for all, is if we stop the war that is already going on. Economic sanctions are intended to damage economies and increase poverty. Increased poverty means increased malnutrition. And - no matter how hard UNICEF, or the Iraqi government, or anti-sanctions activists try - there's no way around that.
Ramzi Kysia is an Arab-American peace activist, working with the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (www.epic-usa.org). He was co-coordinator of the Voices in the Wilderness Iraq Peace Team (www.iraqpeaceteam.org) from August-October 2002 - a group of Americans pledging to stay in Iraq before, during, and after any future U.S. attack. The Iraq Peace Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.