April 24, 2003
by Dennis T. Avery
Most of Iraq’s women and children have suffered from the bone-stunting hunger and malnutrition for the last twelve years, but at last somebody is doing something to get them adequate food: Not Saddam’s government, not the United Nations (UN), not France, but America’s “coalition of the willing.”
British soldiers risked their lives in house-to-house fighting to clear the port of Basra for incoming shipments of food and medicine. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy captured Iraqi government vessels trying to lay “influence mines” in the waters around Basra—intended to sink the ships carrying the humanitarian aid. Further north, U.S. troops fought to clear the roads for immediate delivery of a million ready-to-eat meals, and eventually some 600,000 tons of U.S. food grain already earmarked for Iraq. But the aid can’t get to the huge majority of Iraq’s consumers until guns are no longer shooting at both allied troops and Iraq's civilians.
Before the Gulf War in 1991, Iraq used oil money to import two-thirds of its food. (Iraq’s own farms are constrained by salt-burdened soils, scarce irrigation water, and the ever-threatening sandstorms.)
After the Gulf War, the UN limited Saddam’s oil sales to prevent him from rebuilding his military power. Saddam, unfortunately, preferred to keep his people short of food while he spent the money from the so-called “humanitarian” oil sales on his Republican Guards and paramilitary forces. Thousands of Saddam’s trucks smuggled oil through Jordan to support his spendthrift sons and Ba’ath Party officials.
The UN in 1999 found that more than 25 percent of Iraq’s children were stunted by shortages of food and deficiencies of key vitamins and minerals that normally come from eating fruits, vegetables, and meat. The World Health Organization says Saddam presided over a six-fold increase in Iraq’s child mortality, due to combined shortages of food and medicine.
France, Germany, and Kofi Annan of the UN seemed perfectly happy to let the “inspection process”—and the hunger and infant deaths—continue for unspecified months or perhaps years. Antiwar demonstrators demanded “containment” for the Iraqi dictator instead of freedom for its people.
President Bush has urged immediate UN approval for re-starting the food-for-oil program on which 60 percent of Iraq’s people have depended. “This urgent humanitarian issue must not be politicized,” Mr. Bush said on March 27. “The Security Council should give Secretary General Kofi Annan the authority to start getting food supplies to those most in need of assistance.” However, Security Council members Russia and Syria are wary of re-starting the food aid, lest it legitimize the use of force in Iraq by America and its allies. Even if approved, restarting the UN’s grain-based food program would fall far short of fully providing adequate diets for Iraqis.
President Bush makes it clear that he sees Iraq’s long-term food security hinging on the country’s huge oil reserves becoming the property of the country’s people. Saddam’s officials are repeatedly warned that destruction of oil or oil production facilities betrays the heritage of the Iraqi people.
A new Iraqi government will not only need cash to finance future food imports, but will also need to invest in the domestic agriculture that used to provide one-third of the country’s calories and most of its fresh produce.
Iraq’s farms are hampered by shortages of pesticides to protect the fruits and vegetables, and lack of spare parts for farm machines and equipment. The country’s unprotected livestock herds are ravaged by foot-and-mouth disease, screwworms, lack of vaccines, and feed shortages.
Iraq will almost certainly have to replace its traditional water-wasting flood irrigation with more expensive water-conserving tube irrigation. Moreover, half of the country’s irrigated farmland is at least moderately salt-ridden, and 10 percent is severely saline. (The region has been irrigating the same land for more than 3,000 years, so salts have inevitably built up.)
Once the guns can be quieted, agriculture and safe water (always the basics of life) must be at the top of the humanitarian “to do” list.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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