The monthly food rationing system on which millions of Iraqis depend is not working properly, according to officials. They warn that delays in food deliveries will have a serious impact on those fasting during the upcoming holy Islamic month of Ramadan (beginning around 13 September), when Muslims go without food and drink from dawn to sunset.
[Read this story in Arabic]
“There are many reasons why the monthly food ration system is not working very well,” Muhammad Ala’a Jabber, director of the west Baghdad office for delivering food rations, said. “There is a shortage of food products, the available products are of bad quality and sometimes are expired and there is a delay in delivery to the distribution offices.”
According to Jabber, Iraq’s food rationing system has continued to worsen since an escalation of sectarian violence began in February 2006. But in the past four months, he said, the problem has reached critical levels.
“It is rare to find items such as baby formula among rationed food. This never happened under Saddam Hussein’s regime when it was common to see an abundance of baby formula,” Jabber said.
“The rice which is available is of bad quality and the beans might require hours to cook. The quantity of flour and tea given to each family has decreased and at least 20 percent of families in search of food rations return home empty handed,” he added.
Food trucks looted
The Ministry of Trade, which is responsible for the delivery of food rations, said insecurity has been the main reason for the shortages in food ration items.
“Many trucks are looted on their way to Baghdad and other cities. Sometimes there is a delay in delivering products from outside the country but we are working hard to keep the programme functioning properly,” Abdel-Aziz Haydar, a media officer at the trade ministry, said.
The monthly food rationing system was introduced by the late former President Saddam Hussein to offset the impact of sweeping trade sanctions imposed on Iraq by the UN after the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Food products were paid for by Iraqi oil which was exchanged under UN administration.
The food system, which is credited with saving millions of Iraqis from starvation, worked until 2003 when Saddam was ousted by US-led forces. Under Saddam, food rations were nearly double the quantity of today’s and consisted of good quality food, recipients and specialists say.
Rations smaller and worse
“All items remaining in the ration have been reduced in quantity by nearly 35 percent,” Professor Muhammad Ezidin, an analyst at Baghdad University, said. “The programme has seriously deteriorated and with the increase in the number of displaced families, each day they face more difficulties to get their food ration, bringing starvation closer to Iraqi families.”
|There is a shortage of food products, the available products are of bad quality and sometimes are expired and there is a delay in delivery to the distribution offices.|
Sinan Youssef, a senior official in the strategy department at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, said that about five million Iraqis depend on the monthly food ration programme but only 60 percent of this number is able to avail of it, leaving two million people in dire poverty.
“These people are mostly displaced families or those who are living in tense zones where the distribution programme is hard to implement,” Youssef added.
According to the last report by Oxfam and a coalition of Iraqi groups, including the NGO Coordination Committee of Iraq (NCCI), up to eight million Iraqis require immediate emergency aid, with nearly half this number living in "absolute poverty”.
Inflation boosting poverty
“Unemployment has topped a staggering 68 percent and inflation has pushed up prices by 70 percent since February 2006,” Youssef said. “Most of these families have a daily income of under US$1.8 per day but at least two million Iraqis have an income of less than one dollar per day.”
|Ali Hasan, a food agent, uses his shop as a distribution point|
Ezidin gave examples of how prices have risen. “A year ago we were able to buy a can of powdered milk for children for less than US$0.3 but today - if you find powdered milk in the market - you have to pay at least US$4. This is an absurdity which the government is ignoring, leaving shopkeepers to put up their own prices without any control,” Ezidin said. “Ramadan is about to start and thousands of people will fast and will have no food to break their fast with.”
Abu Akram, 32, a father of four in Baghdad, does not know how he will cope. “I’ve had a delay in my food ration for more than two months. My children are sick, suffering from malnutrition and I’m unemployed. I don’t know where to go to get money to feed them.”