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Aid agencies prepare for war in Iraq

Switzerland says it is prepared for the humanitarian crisis likely to be unleashed by a United States-led invasion of Iraq.

This content was published on January 29, 2003 - 17:02

As the possibility of war looms ever closer, officials have been working to ensure that sufficient aid is in place to reach those in need.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) says as many as 500,000 Iraqi people could require medical assistance in the aftermath of an invasion.

The figure is in line with United Nations estimates that up to three million Iraqis could be hit by food shortages, while a possible 900,000 refugees might try to flee the country.

Aid workers are particularly concerned about the possible outbreak of diseases such as cholera and dysentery, should the country's sanitation and water systems be damaged in any bombing campaign.

They stress that these diseases could reach epidemic, if not pandemic, proportions.

Moreover, since most Iraqi citizens rely on government rations for food - a legacy of the 1991 Gulf War - an invasion could easily cause widespread hunger.

Quick response

The SDC's preparation involves stockpiling essential supplies, ready to be sent at short notice to crisis areas in Iraq.

These include tents, blankets, medicine and food, which are being stored by the International Committee of the Red Cross and Christian charities.

"We have our stocks prepared," Toni Frisch, a humanitarian aid expert at the SDC told swissinfo. "We have, for instance, about 1,000 tents ready to be deployed and many other relief goods, all stored in Switzerland."

The SDC also has a team of up to 15 specialists, trained in areas such as logistics, site planning and sanitation, who could be sent to Iraq within 48 hours.

Joint effort

International aid agencies are working together to try to ensure a quick response to any unfolding humanitarian crisis.

The SDC, for example is coordinating its preparations with the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, and the ICRC to determine the highest priorities for aid if conflict breaks out.

"We are closely cooperating with international organisations to draw up programmes," said Frisch.

"These programmes are at the moment focusing mainly on the most vulnerable groups, which are women and children, particularly with regards to water and sanitation."

Relief effort

However, aid agencies say it is impossible to predict the scale of any future disaster, and the SDC is therefore preparing for a worst-case scenario of five million Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons.

Officials, however, remain hopeful that a solution to the current diplomatic crisis can be found and that war can be avoided.

The SDC's budgeting for 2003 reflects this optimism. It has prepared what it calls an ordinary budget of SFr5 million, close to last year's figure of SFr4.5 million.

But Frisch added that this budget could be quickly doubled if war becomes a reality.

swissinfo, Faryal Mirza

Key facts

As many as 500,000 Iraqis could need medical assistance if war breaks out.
The UN estimates that up to three million Iraqis could be hit by food shortages, while a possible 900,000 refugees might try to flee the country.
Cholera and dysentery may break out should the country's sanitation and water systems be damaged.
Most Iraqi citizens rely on government rations for food, and an invasion may bring widespread hunger.
Supplies such as tents, blankets, medicine and food are being stockpiled in Switzerland.

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