Aid agencies have warned that one million refugees could flee Iraq if Britain and America do not pull back from war.
Their warnings of a "humanitarian disaster" were echoed yesterday by the International Development Secretary, Clare Short, who again broke ranks with the Government, insisting war against Saddam Hussein cannot be justified if it causes "devastating suffering" to his people.
Calling on the UK to exert its influence on George Bush to follow the course set by the United Nations, she said: "An all-out war that caused devastating suffering to the people of Iraq would be wrong."
Ms Short's intervention came as humanitarian charities working in and around Iraq predicted that as well as vast numbers being forced across the borders into Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Iran, Iraqis could contract life-threatening diseases, including typhoid and cholera, on an "epidemic scale". And already malnourished people could be deprived of food if charities cannot get in to ensure the distribution of vital supplies.
Although the UK Government is currently drawing up contingency plans and setting aside cash to fund a humanitarian operation, the aid agencies fear their efforts will come too late for many.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, said last week: "A war in Iraq will be a disaster from the humanitarian perspective." And representatives of major relief organizations working in Iraq Oxfam, Christian Aid, British Overseas Aid Group, ActionAid and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development have warned against war. Paul Sherlock, Oxfam's leading sanitation expert who has worked in the region for more than 20 years, said the numbers of Iraqis with mains water had dropped since the 1991 Gulf War from 75 per cent to 45 per cent in rural areas. Barely a third of the water was treated following a decline in state funding of sewage treatment, and the quality, he said, was already "very, very bad".
Any war, which would target the power stations needed to run the water system, posed the possibility of "all sorts of epidemics" and a "very high risk of water-related diseases".
These epidemics would come as the population of Iraq was struggling to get sufficient food: 16 million people more than two-thirds of the population depend on the already fragile food-rationing system run by the international community. According to a senior source at Christian Aid, if a bombing campaign was begun in February, the Iraqi people would have just two weeks of food left.
Britain and the US continue to insist that war with Iraq is not inevitable, and it is difficult to predict the length and scale of any conflict. The aid agencies believe that many people would stay put for as long as they could, especially in the capital. However, preparations are being made for upwards of one million refugees to flee the country in the event of a sustained campaign.
The cost of the humanitarian operation in the event of action is estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars. Aid agencies are already working with neighboring states to set up refugee camps and get medical and sanitation equipment and food and water in place to avert the worst of the possible crisis.
© 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd