Atheer leans back in his chair to gather his thoughts. We’re sitting in the anonymity of a crowded lunch room on the UN compound in Erbil — as UNICEF Iraq’s Emergency Coordinator for the Mosul crisis, Atheer makes every minute of his day count.
He is a man with a lot on his mind. Military operations to retake Mosul and the surrounding areas have passed the six month mark and with over 600,000 people currently displaced UNICEF’s humanitarian operations are in full swing.
“UNICEF is in life-saving mode. Even within emergencies we have emergencies, so we’re focusing on food, water and health.
“When you enter the city, it’s damaged. But the moment you get close to the old city [on the western banks of the river and in the center of town], you can see that there’s no building more than a meter high. They’ve all been hit.”
UNICEF works with a mix of non-governmental organizations and government agencies who do day to day operations including distributing food and water, coordinating health care and water distributions, and getting camps for displaced people up and running. They work in extraordinarily hazardous circumstances to bring assistance to those in need.
“As an emergency coordinator, my options for action are limited and I’m lucky to have partners who are willing to operate in areas of high risk. But if I lost those partners, then what?” Atheer reflects.
He went recently to the west part of Mosul that has been retaken by Iraqi Security Forces. Retaken, though, does not mean that the mission was without danger. While visiting a distribution of emergency supplies, there was an explosion about a kilometer away, forcing the distribution to be halted. Within a half an hour, there were another two explosions nearby.
The day’s mission involved visiting a few of UNICEF’S ongoing activities in west Mosul and assessing the viability of new projects like getting local markets back up and running.
“We were looking at the ability of the local market to provide goods for people in west Mosul.
“There were a number of surprises for us. The first is that the two main items of Iraqi diet, flour and rice, are mostly non-existent in the city. The second is the situation inside the city has gotten worse very quickly. Security concerns means that there is limited movement of goods into the city. Additionally, there is little cash available to get circulating into the market. People were telling us that they’ve used up the last of their cash in the last few months.”
In addition to a scarcity of food, many people inside Mosul struggle to regularly access clean water due to heavy damage done to the infrastructure of the city. Currently, UNICEF is trucking 1.8 million liters of water into the western side of the city daily.
“UNICEF is doing water distribution in west Mosul. When I spoke to some of the truck drivers, though, they told me they are pretty limited about which neighborhoods they were able to go to, or how far inside they deliver. This means that some people still have to walk for up to an hour to access water.”
Water is an overarching problem, affecting not just individuals, but the ability of schools and hospitals to function. Atheer and the UNICEF team visited several hospitals in west Mosul on their mission.
One doctor I met was wearing surgical scrubs with blood to up to his elbows. He seemed pretty shaken up. I asked if I could get him anything, and he said water. I thought he meant water to drink and offered to get him a couple of bottles from the car. The doctor said, ‘No, I need water for the hospital.’
“I worked with our WASH [water, sanitation and hygiene] team to provide water tankers to the hospital.
“The primary health centers are overloaded. There are three people in a bed and the number of casualties they have received is enormous. Imagine the number of families who have been affected.”
There’s a brief pause, and Atheer shakes his head.
“I was able to put water where it was needed and send medical kits to one of the hospitals yesterday.”
UNICEF is carrying out an array of activities in west Mosul. More than 50 Multi-Sectoral Emergency Package (MSEP) distributions, like the one Atheer visited, have taken place in west Mosul over the past few months.
For those fleeing Mosul, UNICEF is working with UNFPA and the World Food Program to distribute food, water and hygiene items through the Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM), which, to date, has reached over a million people.
UNICEF continues to monitor the nutritional status of children fleeing Mosul. In the past, Iraq has had good nutrition rates for children, but food scarcity inside Mosul has raised concerns about an increased rate of malnutrition. UNICEF is working with the Ninewa Governorate’s Department of Health to address cases of malnourishment by providing supplementary food, and in severe cases, refer children to hospitals for more extensive treatment.
UNICEF Iraq remains grateful to our partners and donors — including Canada, Germany (BMZ and KfW), the European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO), Italy, Japan, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States (OFDA & PRM) — who support our work to ensure people in need across Iraq can live in dignity and health.
Jennifer Sparks is a communications consultant for UNICEF Iraq and has previously covered humanitarian operations across the Middle East and North Africa.