23 September 2003, Rome -- Despite a better cereal harvest and the lifting of economic sanctions, according to a report published today by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), nearly half of the 26.3 million Iraqis are estimated to be poor and in need of assistance.

The effects of war, economic sanctions and three years of severe drought (1999-2001) have seriously eroded the livelihoods base of Iraqis, FAO/WFP said in the food supply and nutrition assessment mission report.

Currently about 60 percent of the Iraqi population are unemployed and depend largely on public food rations.

While starvation has been averted, chronic malnutrition persists among several million vulnerable people, including some 100 000 refugees and around 200 000 internally displaced people.

The situation of mothers and children in central and southern Iraq is of particular concern. In the northern governorates, acute malnutrition has been virtually eliminated.

Increased harvest

This year's cereal production in Iraq is forecast at 4.12 million tonnes, 22 percent higher than estimated in 2002. Production increased mainly due to favourable rains in the North, increased irrigation and timely distribution of agricultural inputs in the main producing areas.

Cereal imports for 2003/2004 (June/July) are estimated at 3.44 million tonnes, of which 3.2 million tonnes are likely to be purchased commercially and 244 000 tonnes are food-aid pledges.

To the greatest extent possible, any additional food aid needs should be procured locally to support farmer's incomes and local prices, FAO/WFP said.

Recent military and political incidents have had a limited impact on winter cereal crops, the report said, but have affected sowing of summer cereal and industrial crops (cotton, sunflower seeds).

The capacity to produce fertilizer nationally has been seriously reduced. Two fertilizer factories are apparently not working, which raises the question of where next year's estimated 600 000 tonnes of fertilizers for cereals alone will come from.

Livestock conditions are generally stable in most parts of the country, having benefited from good pastures in the north and grain availability.

Water availability and sanitation are major problems for post-war Iraq. Currently a daily maximum of 70 litres per person is available to the five million inhabitants of Baghdad city. The situation is worse in the southern cities.

A substantial flow of resources to rehabilitate the agricultural sector and the economy as a whole is required to improve the nutritional status of the Iraqi population, according to FAO/WFP.

The mission recommended that the returns from oil sales be used for the development of the Iraqi economy through the recently established Development Fund for Iraq with due consideration given to the agricultural sector.

Millions depend on food assistance

The report said that currently millions of Iraqis have no access to food other than through public food assistance, which is financed through the oil-for-food-programme.

"Any significant disruption of the public distribution system would have a severe negative impact on food access," the report warned.

The FAO/WFP mission recognized the need to continue the public food distribution system and relief food aid activities for the short-medium term, because the agriculture sector will need considerable time for rehabilitation.

"However, the highly subsidized food basket policy must be rethought and better targeted; it should eventually be gradually phased out," the report said.

Food safety nets for children and mothers

WFP estimates that 3.5 million people will need supplementary food at a cost of $51 million in 2004. Food supplements are needed for malnourished children, their family members and pregnant and nursing mothers, WFP said.

FAO said that substantial assistance is required to rehabilitate agricultural infrastructure, including irrigation and local industrial agriculture, and to revitalize technical support structures and services.

Erwin Northoff
Information Officer, FAO
(+39) 06 570 53105