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Iraq: Malnourishment Persists, But Statistics Need Clarification

  • Charles Recknagel

When Iraq was ruled by Saddam Hussein and was under United Nations sanctions, malnutrition in children was a major concern. To help offset the danger, the UN instituted the oil-for-food program to deliver supplementary food to Iraqi families under a ration system. Now, two years after the toppling of Saddam and the lifting of sanctions, one might expect the threat of malnutrition to have disappeared. But UN surveys show it still exists.

Prague, 31 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- A UN human rights expert said in a report issued in Geneva yesterday that malnutrition is a growing problem among children under 5 years of age in Iraq.

Jean Ziegler, special rapporteur for the UN Commission on Human Rights on the right to food worldwide, said that "acute malnutrition in children under the age of 5 has almost doubled" to nearly 8 percent since U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The figure is among the most alarming yet cited to describe the food situation in Iraq. Acute malnutrition means that a child is literally wasting away. The condition is characterized by extreme loss of body weight, lethargy, and -- if untreated -- loss of life.

But where do the figures come from, and how accurately do they describe the situation across Iraq?

The same figures have previously appeared in some press accounts of a study conducted in the middle of 2004 whose results are yet to be officially released. The study, financed by the UN Development Program (UNDP), was conducted by Iraq's Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation in partnership with Norway's Institute for Applied International Studies (Fafo).
Despite the controversy over statistics, food experts do agree that problems with food and nutrition persist in Iraq and that children are particularly at risk.


Frances Kinnon, a UNDP representative in Amman, says the results of the study will be presented in the next few weeks.

"The full results of the Comprehensive Living Conditions Survey, undertaken by the Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation in collaboration with UNDP and Fafo, have not yet been released," she says. "But they will be so by the end of April or beginning of May, firstly in Amman and a few days later in Baghdad."

International aid experts familiar with the study say the final results could differ from the earlier statistics -- which were leaked to the press in Baghdad in November.

Some tell RFE/RL privately that the leaked statistics were taken out of the context of the full study, suggesting some controversy over their interpretation. It is not clear if the leaked statistics refer to malnutrition rates across Iraq or apply to specific areas.

Still, despite the controversy over statistics, food experts do agree that problems with food and nutrition persist in Iraq and that children are particularly at risk.

The UN World Food Program (WFP) reported in October that a study it conducted found some 6.5 million Iraqis -- 25 percent of the entire population -- remain "highly dependent on food rations and are therefore vulnerable" to malnutrition.

The agency also found in its study that 27 percent of all children up to the age of 5 are chronically malnourished. Malnourishment is distinct from acute malnourishment in that it is not immediately life-threatening.

Following those findings, the WFP launched a one-year emergency operation costing $60 million to provide additional food to target groups. Those groups included 220,000 malnourished infants and their family members, more than 1.7 million primary school children, and 350,000 pregnant or lactating mothers.

The persistent problems with malnutrition come despite the fact that Iraq maintains the food rationing system originally set up under the UN's oil-for-food program to offset the effect of sanctions. Under the program, now administered by the Baghdad government, Iraqi families can receive basic supplies from food shops upon presentation of ration coupons.

Aid experts say that the state-run Public Distribution System for food rations continues to function adequately despite Iraq's ongoing security problems.

Jon Pedersen, deputy managing director of Fafo, tells RFE/RL from Oslo that people can get to food ration stores on a daily basis, except in extreme crises, such as those in Fallujah last year.
The persistent problems with malnutrition come despite the fact that Iraq maintains the food rationing system originally set up under the UN's oil-for-food program to offset the effect of sanctions.


But he said obtaining sanitary drinking water is a problem in many areas. Drinking impure water can aggravate malnourishment by causing diarrhea. If severe or untreated, the condition can be fatal.

However, Pedersen says further study will be needed to understand the exact causes of the persisting malnutrition in Iraq.

Carol Bellamy, the outgoing head of the UN children's agency UNICEF, said late last year that there was little relief workers could do to ease the plight of Iraqi children because fighting hampers or prevents most aid operations in the country.

UNICEF officials were not immediately available to say if the situation had changed in recent months.
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