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Chechnya Food Crisis Looms

In addition to classic food aid -- including maintaining soup kitchens for orphans and the elderly in Grozny -- WFP trades food for work geared at rebuilding Chechnya's crumbling infrastructure, like hospitals.
by Edith Honan
UPI Correspondent
United Nations (UPI) Nov 06, 2006
With another bitterly cold winter on the way and tuberculosis rates on the rise, nearly 250,000 people in Chechnya face a cutoff of U.N. food aid. Donor countries say the U.N. World Food Program has been too slow to update its approach. The agency says a highly vulnerable population now risks going hungry. There is evidence Russia shares the blame.

WFP officials told United Press International the agency can finance its efforts through the end of November. But with the European Commission Humanitarian Organization, the program's principal donor, threatening to scale back aid, U.N. officials are warning they may be forced to shut down the program for the second winter in a row.

Last year, at the height of the coldest winter recorded in Russia in 25 years, no food aid was distributed from November to March.

Doctors working in the region have said malnutrition, persistent stress, unemployment and growing poverty combined to cause a tuberculosis outbreak in Chechnya. WFP is already assisting some 650 victims of the illness, though Mia Turner, a WFP spokeswoman based in Cairo, told UPI the stigma attached to tuberculosis could mean many cases have gone unreported.

But even when donor countries do meet the demands, food aid does not always follow.

In July, WFP released an urgent plea for more aid. In fact, a shipment from the U.S. Agency for International Development had already arrived the previous September, but the food was held up at the main St. Petersburg port. The two shipments carried a total of 2,600 metric tons of iron-enriched wheat flour, but Russian officials told WFP the food did not meet health standards. The iron levels were too high, they said, and would not be permitted passage to Chechnya. Negotiations continued for months, but no solution emerged.

Only now, after a year of waiting, has the agency resolved to divert the aid to Afghanistan, Robin Lodge, a WFP spokesman, told UPI.

This was not the first time WFP has faced this kind of problem, Tatyana Chubrikova, the agency's Russia director, told UPI from Moscow. In 2001, a shipment was denied passage, leading to a temporary food shortage.

WFP prefers to buy food locally or regionally with money from donors, though sometimes, as with USAID, donors insist on contributing food directly.

Chubrikova said she hopes the American agency will now reconsider.

"Because of the problems at customs, we requested that now maybe cash is better at this stage," she said.

The situation in Chechnya is not typical as U.N. operations go.

Russia's veto power on the U.N. Security Council, the body charged with maintaining global peace and security, makes any effort to take up the issue largely futile. Chechnya's misery has continued also off the radar of Arab states, thanks perhaps to Russia's political support for Iran, Lebanon, and Sudan. Risks faced by journalists and others working in Chechnya are so great -- exemplified most recently by the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist who made torture in Chechnya her beat -- the flow of information has slowed.

For its part, ECHO, the European Union's humanitarian arm, says the shortages are of the WFP's own making. The war between Chechen rebels and Russia is now six years in the past, and Chechnya's dependence on international aid should be weaned.

"We think that, in general, food aid needs to be dropped in Chechnya. The distribution of food is not a good solution after six years," Edi Amicabile, ECHO's desk officer for the Northern Caucuses, told UPI.

Rather than cutting the number of beneficiaries, WFP has responded to the shortages by giving each beneficiary less, Amicabile said, a practice ECHO finds unacceptable.

"In principal, we are thinking of phase-down, not phase-out," she said. The next estimates will be announced in the middle of 2007 and ECHO says it is debating whether to reduce its funding for food aid, or redirect it altogether.

It wasn't always like this in Chechnya.

After oil was discovered in the mountainous territory in 1893, prosperity seemed Chechnya's destiny. The quiet, tree-lined capital, Grozny, was known as the Pearl of the Caucasus. Today, the city's buildings are marked with bullet holes, traces of the 1994-1996 war between Chechen separatists and Russian forces following Chechnya's brief independence. The second war broke out in 1999, soon after Russian President Vladimir Putin entered office, and it threw the economy into a tailspin. Oil production, which had reached 21 million tons at its height in 1971, fell to 2 million tons this year.

In addition to classic food aid -- including maintaining soup kitchens for orphans and the elderly in Grozny -- WFP trades food for work geared at rebuilding Chechnya's crumbling infrastructure, like hospitals. Chubrikova says WFP is given very limited access. It makes just two deliveries per month and is not given adequate time to visit each of the distribution centers.

Turner told UPI the agency will continue to view Chechnya as an emergency operation as long as the social and economic security situation makes recovery impossible.

Source: United Press International

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