Conditions in Iraq in the aftermath of the US military assault have been difficult to ascertain. The most authoritative report to date is that of the UN mission led by Undersecretary-General Martti Ahtisaari, which spent March 10-17 in Iraq. The mission, which included representatives of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and other UN programs, had intended to examine conditions first in Kuwait and then Iraq, but the Kuwaiti authorities requested it delay its arrival there until a UN Environment Program mission had completed its work.

In Baghdad, the mission first met with local UN representatives and senior Iraqi officials. Working groups conducted field studies in and around Baghdad from March 11-16. Ahtisaari also led a field mission to Mosul, personally inspected numerous sites around Baghdad, and met with foreign diplomats and senior International Committee of the Red Cross officials there. Iraqi officials did not grant permission for the mission to travel to Suwayra, Musayyib, Basra, Nasiriyya and Kirkuk, as requested. Ahtisaari reports that information available indicates that conditions elsewhere in the country are “unlikely to vary greatly from what we ourselves observed” but that “conditions may be substantially worse in certain locations.” The report, excerpted below, does not deal with the Iraqi regime’s subsequent military campaign to extinguish civil rebellions in the north and south of the country.

Conditions in Kuwait resulting from the Iraqi occupation and the Gulf war are much more widely known. Ahtissari’s mission there, completed on March 27, accuses Iraq of making “a deliberate attempt to extinguish Kuwait.” The mission saw “prolific evidence of arson, looting, malicious destruction of homes, businesses, markets, museums, libraries and all that a nation cherishes.” Over half of Kuwait’s oil wells were set afire. “From the air, the horizon sometimes comprises only black clouds and pillars of fire,” the mission reported. “Rivers, ponds and even lakes of spilling oil lie on the sand and edge towards the wadis, the roads and the sea. Power stations, oil refineries, communications’s facilities, water desalination plants have been destroyed by war or vandalized so that they are irreparable. Harbors are blocked, ships sunk, cranes toppled.”

“Much has already been done,” the mission reported, toward beginning Kuwait’s recovery; basic services should be restored to Kuwait City by mid-April and to the rest of the country within six months. About 80 percent of the world’s total oil well firefighting capacity is at work in Kuwait. Food, water and gasoline are being distributed. While “little in the way of traditional humanitarian aid is immediately required,” the mission reports, the number of unexploded mines and bombs is “colossal” and their removal “may be one of the most urgent humanitarian needs.”

—Martha Wenger


I and the members of my mission were fully conversant with media reports regarding the situation in Iraq and…with the recent WHO/UNICEF report on water, sanitary and health conditions in the Greater Baghdad area…. Nothing that we had seen or read had quite prepared us for the particular form of devastation which has now befallen the country. The recent conflict has wrought near-apocalyptic results upon the economic infrastructure of what had been, until January 1991, a rather highly urbanized and mechanized society. Now, most means of modern life support have been destroyed or rendered tenuous. Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre-industrial age, but with all the disabilities of post-industrial dependency on an intensive use of energy and technology.

…My report to you…seeks with as much exactitude as possible to convey the extent of needs in the primary areas of humanitarian concern: for safe water and sanitation, basic health and medical support; for food; for shelter; and for the logistical means to make such support actually available. Underlying each analysis is the inexorable reality that, as a result of war, virtually all previously viable sources of fuel and power (apart from a limited number of mobile generators) are now, essentially, defunct. The far-reaching implications of this energy and communications vacuum as regards urgent humanitarian support are of crucial significance for the nature and effectiveness of the international response.

These conditions, together with recent civil unrest…mean that the authorities are as yet scarcely able even to measure the dimensions of the calamity, much less respond to its consequences, because they cannot obtain full and accurate data…. Most employees are simply unable to come to work. Both the authorities and the trade unions estimate that approximately 90 percent of industrial workers have been reduced to inactivity and will be deprived of income as of the end of March. Government departments have at present only marginal attendance. Prior to recent events, Iraq was importing about 70 percent of its food needs. Now, owing to the fuel shortage, the inability to import and the virtual breakdown of the distribution system, the flow of food through the private sector has been reduced to a trickle, with costs accelerating upward. Many food prices are already beyond the purchasing reach of most Iraqi families.

Food and Agriculture

Food is currently made available to the population both through government allocation and rations, and through the market. The Ministry of Trade’s monthly allocation to the population of staple food items fell from 343,000 tons in September 1990 to 182,000 tons, when rationing was introduced, and was further reduced to 135,000 tons in January 1991 (39 percent of the pre-sanctions level)…. All evidence indicates that flour is now at a critically low level, and that supplies of sugar, rice, tea, vegetable oil, powdered milk and pulses are currently at critically low levels or have been exhausted. Distribution of powdered milk, for instance, is now reserved exclusively for sick children on medical prescription.

Livestock farming has been seriously affected by sanctions because many feed products were imported. The sole laboratory producing veterinary vaccines was destroyed during the conflict…. All stocks of vaccine were stated to have been destroyed in the same sequence of bombardments on this center, which was an FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN] project.

The country has had a particular dependence upon foreign vegetable seeds, and the mission was able to inspect destroyed seed warehouses…. Relevant agricultural authorities informed the mission that all stocks of potatoes and vegetable seeds had been exhausted….

This year’s grain harvest in June is seriously compromised for a number of reasons, including failure of irrigation/drainage (no power for pumps, lack of spare parts); lack of pesticides and fertilizers (previously imported); and lack of fuel and spare parts for the highly mechanized and fuel-dependent harvesting machines. Should this harvest fail, or be far below average, as is very likely barring a rapid change in the situation, widespread starvation conditions become a real possibility.

The official program for the support of socially dependent groups of the population (the elderly, disabled, mothers and children, hospital patients, orphans, refugees) is affected by the overall grave deficiencies in the food situation.

The mission had the opportunity to conduct independent research relating to household costs and living standards in Baghdad. Such standards have declined rapidly in the last months, while food and fuel prices have climbed dramatically…. Interviews with private wholesale food distributors revealed that their stocks are near depletion…. The government-initiated rationing system was designed to provide families with a fraction of their basic necessities at prices comparable to those prevailing before August…. Independent surveys in several diverse areas of Baghdad showed that many families cannot draw their full rations, since the distribution centers are often depleted and they have great difficulty in traveling to other centers. The quality of food distributed has itself deteriorated to the point of causing health problems. Most families also reported that they could not meet their needs through the private markets…. The price of most basic necessities has increased by 1,000 per cent or more. For example, flour is now 5-6 dinars per kilogram (and seemingly still rising); rice has risen to 6 dinars per kilogram…and whole milk to 10 dinars. In contrast to this hyperinflation, many incomes have collapsed. Many employees cannot draw salaries, the banking system has in large measure closed down and withdrawals are limited to 100 dinars per month. The minimum monthly wage was 54 dinars and the average monthly salary of a civil servant was 70 dinars. In short, most families lack access to adequate rations….

The mission recommends that…sanctions in respect of food supplies should be immediately removed, as should those relating to the import of agricultural equipment and supplies. The urgent supply of basic commodities to safeguard vulnerable groups is strongly recommended, and the provision of major quantities of the following staples for the general population: milk, wheat flour, rice, sugar, vegetable oil and tea. These are required to meet minimum general requirements until the next harvest….

The mission observes that, without a restoration of energy supplies to the agricultural production and distribution sectors, implementation of many of the above recommendations would be to little effect. Drastic international measures across the whole agricultural spectrum are most urgent.

Water, Sanitation and Health

As regards water, prior to the Crisis Baghdad received about 450 liters per person supplied by seven treatment stations purifying water from the Tigris river. The rest of the country had about 200-250 liters per person per day, purified and supplied by 238 central water treatment stations and 1,134 smaller water projects. All stations operated on electric power….

With the destruction of power plants, oil refineries, main oil storage facilities and water-related chemical plants, all electrically operated installations have ceased to function. Diesel-operated generators were reduced to operating on a limited basis, their functioning affected by lack of fuel, lack of maintenance, lack of spare parts and non-attendance of workers. The supply of water in Baghdad dropped to less than 10 liters per day but has now recovered to approximately 30-40 liters in about 70 percent of the area (less than 10 percent of the overall previous use)…. In Baghdad, untreated sewage has now to be dumped directly into the river — which is the source of the water supply — and all drinking water plants there and throughout the rest of the country are using river water with high sewage contamination…. While the water authority has warned that water must be boiled, there is little fuel to do this, and what exists is diminishing….

Only limited information is available…[on] the remainder of the country…. In those areas where there are no generators, or generators have broken down, or the fuel supply is exhausted, the population draws its water directly from polluted rivers and trenches. This is widely apparent in rural areas, where women and children can be seen washing and filling water receptacles….

…A further major problem, now imminent, is the climate. Iraq has long and extremely hot summers, the temperature often reaching 50 degrees Celsius. This has two main implications: a) the quantity of water must be increased…; and b) the heat will accelerate the incubation of bacteria…. Overall sanitary circumstances…have already led to a fourfold increase in diarrheal disease incidence among children under five years of age….

As regards sanitation…rapidly rising temperatures will soon accentuate an existing crisis. Heaps of garbage are spread in the urban areas and collection is poor to non-existent…. Incinerators are in general not working…. Iraqi rivers are heavily polluted by raw sewage…. Pools of sewage lie in the streets and villages. Health hazards will build in the weeks to come.

…The mission found that health conditions in Baghdad and throughout the country remain precarious. A major factor is the water and sanitation situation described above. Additionally, the total lack of telephone communication and drastically reduced transport capability pose other problems to the health system since basic information on communicable diseases cannot be collected and disseminated, and essential drugs, vaccines and medical supplies cannot be distributed efficiently….

There is an urgent need to establish a national surveillance and reporting capacity for communicable diseases…. Communications, functional laboratories, including necessary chemicals and reagents, and transport and power resources are essential to provide for this emergency humanitarian need…. The mission concluded that a catastrophe could be faced at any time if conditions do not change….

Refugees and Other Vulnerable Groups

Conditions described above affect the whole population of Iraq and, most especially, low-income groups. The mission paid particular attention to the plight of especially vulnerable groups, whether Iraqi or non-Iraqi. Thus, it found that care for orphans, the elderly and the handicapped had been in many instances disrupted, with residents of institutions having had to be moved and regrouped at various locations. It recommends the urgent implementation of a humanitarian program aimed at enabling some 25 orphanages and 71 other social welfare centers to resume their normal activities….

As regards the displaced and the homeless, the authorities themselves have not yet been able fully to assess the impact of the recent hostilities. They have, however, calculated that approximately 9,000 homes were destroyed or damaged beyond repair during the hostilities, of which 2,500 were in Baghdad and 1,900 were in Basra. This has created a new homeless potential total of 72,000 persons. Official help is now hampered by the conditions described throughout this report and, especially, a virtual halt in the production of local building materials and the impossibility to import. The input of essential materials should be permitted.

Logistics: Transportation, Communications and Energy

…At present, Iraq’s sole available surface transport link with the outside world is via Amman to ‘Aqaba [Jordan]. (It has been reported that a bridge has recently been destroyed on the Iskenderun/Mersin road to Iraq from Turkey; and the ports of Basra and Umm Qasr are currently out of use; nor has there for some years been any direct cargo traffic to Iraq via the Syrian Arab Republic.) Internal transportation by road is now severely affected by a lack of spare parts and tires and, above all, by a lack of fuel…. The mission was informed that a total of 83 road bridges had been destroyed….

…The mission was informed that all internal and external telephone systems had been destroyed, with the exception of a limited local exchange in one town…. Communication in Iraq is now on a person-to-person basis, as mail services have also disintegrated.

The role of energy in Iraq is especially important because of the level of urbanization (approximately 72 percent of the population lives in towns), its industrialization, and its prolonged, very hot, summers…. Bombardment has paralyzed oil and electricity sectors almost entirely…. There have, officially, been virtually no sales of gasoline to private users since February. The mission was told that the only petrol, oil and lubricants products now available are heating oil (rationed to 60 litres per month, per family) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which is rationed to one cylinder per month, per family…. Stocks of these two products are close to exhaustion…. Initial inspections are said to show that necessary repairs to begin power generation and oil refining at minimal levels may take anywhere from 4 to 13 months. Minimal survival level to undertake humanitarian activities would require approximately 25 percent of pre-war civilian domestic fuel consumption. Its absence…may have calamitous consequences for food, water supply and for sanitation, and therefore for health conditions. It seems inescapable that these fuel imports must take place urgently.


…I, together with all my colleagues, am convinced that there needs to be a major mobilization and movement of resources to deal with aspects of this deep crisis in the fields of agriculture and food, water, sanitation and health…. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to remedy these immediate humanitarian needs without dealing with the underlying need for energy, on an equally urgent basis…. It is unmistakable that the Iraqi people may soon face a further imminent catastrophe, which could include epidemic and famine, if massive life-supporting needs are not rapidly met. The long summer, with its often 45 or even 50 degree temperatures (113-122 degrees Fahrenheit), is only weeks away. Time is short.

How to cite this article:

"Document: Report of the UN Mission to Assess Humanitarian Needs in Iraq," Middle East Report 170 (May/June 1991).

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