With a war against Iraq perhaps days away, the world's richest governments have given the United Nations barely a quarter of the funds its agencies have asked for to deal with the expected humanitarian catastrophe.
"We made an updated appeal for $120m (£75m) in February and have so far received $30m (£18.75m)," Elizabeth Byrs, the Geneva spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Activities (UNOCHA), said yesterday.
The result of this shortfall in funds is starkly illustrated by the empty field near the Kurdish town of Soran. There are no tents. There is no sanitation. In fact, there is nothing at all - merely a vast, muddy plain beneath a freezing snow-covered mountain. But it is here, close to the border with Iran, that authorities in opposition-controlled northern Iraq are planning to house tens of thousands of refugees.
Kurdish officials admit they are unprepared to deal with the looming refugee crisis because the international community has offered insufficient help.
The UN has predicted that up to 2 million Iraqis could be left homeless by the war. Many are expected to flee to neighboring countries such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Turkey. Close to a million refugees are likely to be displaced within Iraq itself, aid workers believe, and half of these will seek sanctuary in the Kurdish self-rule enclave of northern Iraq.
"We now believe that people from the south and center will move to the north once they perceive this is a relatively safe area," said Giorgio Francia, Relief International's head of mission in northern Iraq. "Once the bombing starts they will try to leave cities like Kirkuk and Mosul."
The two Kurdish regional administrations in northern Iraq have drawn up emergency plans to accommodate refugees in 25 camps but say they have virtually no tents or medicines.
"We have been lobbying the European Union and the Americans for two months. We have asked for shelters, tents and medicines. They have promised us help but we don't know whether we are going to get it in time. We are talking about a major crisis here," said Sakvan Farhan, the head of Kurdistan's emergency coordination department.
The same shortages await the 600,000 people who are expected to try to flee Iraq. UN plans to amass stocks of food and medicines for the millions of Iraqis likely to need help are a long way behind schedule.
One of the UN's biggest worries is the future of the oil-for-food program. Around 16 million people, more than 60% of the Iraqi population, depend on it. At the moment the Iraqi government imports food commercially through a UN-supervised program. It is distributed by Iraqis via 45,000 outlets in every big city in a scheme which is accepted even by the US and the UK as fair and efficient.
Once the first shot is fired, distribution is likely to stop because drivers will fear going into a war zone. The Iraqi government last month gave people two months' ration but aid agencies say the poorest Iraqis have sold some of it. Even if they do not flee their homes under bombing raids, they will be at risk of hunger. UN officials will be withdrawn from Iraq in advance of the bombing, and there is no guarantee when their programs will resume.
The World Food Program. appealed for $23m to finance "an initial contingency plan" which would stockpile enough food just outside Iraq to give meager rations for 900,000 people for 10 weeks. "So far only enough is in place for 500,000 for 10 weeks. We have received only $7.5m," said Trevor Rowe, the WFP spokesman. "We may have to feed more than 10 times the number we appealed for, that is, 10 million people."
The UNHCR is equally short of funds. It has received $16.3m out of the $60m it asked for, which means it has stocks of tents, plastic sheeting and jerry cans ready for 180,000 people instead of the 600,000 refugees it estimates. This is a best case analysis. The worst case analysis is that around 900,000 people will try to leave Iraq and another million will be displaced inside it.
Besides the money given by governments, most UN agencies have been dipping into reserve funds in the hope that they can replenish them later.
The US defense department has promised to deliver ready-to-eat meals similar to those it dropped by air on Afghanistan during the bombing campaign of 2001. It is reported to have three million rations ready.
But US and British non-government organizations are worried that the Pentagon's role in relief programs makes independent aid charities look as though they support the war.
The directors of several UK agencies met Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, last week to express their concern. "We've got to have an organization which is not part of the military campaign. This affects people's confidence. We want the UN to take over immediately and be involved fully in the planning already now," Roger Riddell, Christian Aid's director, said yesterday.
"We could not operate as part of a war effort involving the US. I'm not sure the Americans understand this. You can't go in as though God is on your side and aid just goes in with the troops," said Mike Aaronson, the director of the Save the Children Fund.
The role of the UN is seen as crucial. "We don't want to be seen as handmaidens of belligerent governments and without a UN mandate for the war we would find it hard to take money from the US or British governments," said Will Day, chief executive of Care International UK.
Unicef, the children's agency, has been warning since December of potential catastrophe for Iraq's children. It expects a huge surge in malnutrition rates for under-fives and of deaths from contaminated water. In the absence of new money from donor governments it has withdrawn $7m from its own emergency program. fund to pay for high protein biscuits and therapeutic milk, water purification tablets and other supplies.
The United States has given some funding to the UN but is reserving most of its cash for its own airdrops. About $78m has been allocated, according to Andrew Natsios, the director of the US Agency for International Development. This is not even 1% of the amount which the military side of the war is expected to cost.
The only good news is that countries which initially said they would close their borders to fleeing Iraqis have changed their minds. Iran has prepared three out of 10 selected campsites. Up to 300,000 refugees are expected to flee to Iran. Having already absorbed more than 2 million refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq in previous conflicts, the Iranian government says refugees will not be allowed beyond the border area.
Jordan has authorized the UNHCR to start setting up camps for 100,000 people in a remote part of the eastern desert .
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003