Food And Water For Thousands

The Early Show, war, ships, human aid
CBS/The Early Show
Desperately needed food and water has finally reached the southern Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr. And as CBS News Correspondent Mark Phillips reports, it took a special military escort to get the humanitarian aid there.

The British supply ship Sir Gallahad moved with escorts up the dangerous channel toward Umm Qasr, a channel that allies, with the help of trained dolphins, had found to be mined.

But the Sir Gallahad is also concerned about other dangers. There were fears the Iraqis would use small, fast, explosive-laden boats in suicides attacks, and it seemed one such boat was speeding toward it. The gunboat charged forward to intercept. But in the last moment, the intruder turned out to be an unexpected American escort.

"We're proving it's safe," said RFA Sir Galahad Capt. Roger Robinson Brown.

Safe, so far, for a military ship, mustered at full battle stations and with well-armed escort.

Whatever the need for these supplies, there is also a need for the coalition to be seen to be delivering them. It's a gesture to try to convince Iraqis and a skeptical world that this war is being fought in aid of, not against, the Iraqi people.

And not everyone's convinced this is the best way to get aid in.

"The problem is that this humanitarian aid wagon has been hitched to the military train. And the military train is not operating, as far as we can see, as the planners hoped it would," said Capt. Brown.

These may be humanitarian supplies, but they are also weapons in a propaganda war, and it's a war some in the coalition are privately admitting they are not winning.

Even before this war began, the 23 million Iraqis were already vulnerable. Largely as a result of years of economic sanctions, Iraqis must cope with contaminated water and often-disrupted electricity. Nearly half the population relies on government rations. Thirty percent of children suffer from chronic malnutrition.

Supplying water is one of the top priorities for the International Committee for the Red Cross since the water system in Iraq has suffered from years of neglect, said Amanda Williamson, a spokesperson.

"We have tried and invested a lot of time and effort before the conflicts of trying to rehabilitate and restore the water supply. But, of course, it has been disrupted because of the conflicts. So that was one of our major concerns. If a population is without safe drinking water, it has an almost immediate impact on their health, among the most vulnerable segments of the population, such as the sick and old and young," Williamson said.

In the town of Basra, for example, the Red Cross has managed to cross the front line to work on the pumping station and restore half the water supply in that region, Williamson said.

As far as food is concerned, she said, the good news is that the population has had time to stock up.

"They were very creative in storing up food stocks in their own homes, as much as they can," she said. The Red Cross does not expect to see life-threatening needs in terms of food early in the conflict.

"If there is a large-scale population movement and people leave their food stocks behind, then we are going to see a serious situation," she noted.

In Baghdad, she said the movement becomes more because of the intensity of the bombardments. Hospital staff report that as well as treating war wounds they are seeing a steady flow of people with chronic diseases (diabetes, asthma, etc) asking for help.

"We have seen a daily influx of casualties in Baghdad and been able to supply the hospitals," she explained. "We have put a large-scale emergency water supply in place, just in case the water supply should get cut off. We also have food supplies in Baghdad. But one of our main concerns is safety."

The Red Cross has significant amounts of aid inside Iraq and in the neighboring countries (to travel into Iraq if needed). It includes medical supplies to treat 180,000 sick and wounded people, food for half a million and water and sanitation equipment, should the water supply be cut off for any reason.