by Niko Kyriakou
(IPS) UNITED NATIONS -- Living conditions in once prosperous Iraq have sharply deteriorated in the two years of the U.S. occupation, says a new joint Iraqi-UN report.
The Iraq Living Conditions Survey (ILCS), based on data from 22,000 households and released May 12, is the first comprehensive statistical description of living standards in the country produced in years and is expected to affect future reconstruction and development assistance, officials said.
"This survey shows a rather tragic situation of the quality of life in Iraq," Barham Salih, Iraq's minister of planning, said in a statement.
Household surveys were conducted last year and measured indicators ranging from health to employment, housing, status of and access to public services, education, income and war-related deaths.
The report estimates the number of Iraqi civilians who have died since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 as between 18,000 and 30,000. Other reports put civilian deaths much higher. Some 1,600 Americans have died in combat.
Of the civilian deaths, 12 percent were children under 18 years of age, meaning that between 2,100 and 3,500 children have been killed in the U.S.-led war thus far, according to ILCS data.
In a country where almost half the population of 27.1 million people is less than 18 years old, some of the most startling findings relate to youth.
Nearly one-fourth of Iraqi children aged between six months and five years are chronically malnourished, meaning they have stunted growth, the report says. Among all Iraqi children, more than one in 10, suffer from general malnutrition, meaning they have a low weight for their age. Another eight percent have acute malnourishment, or low weight for their height.
In some areas of the country, acute malnourishment reaches 17 percent and stunting reaches 26 percent, the report says. Both infant and child mortality rates appear to have been steadily increasing over the past 15 years. At present, 32 babies out of every 1,000 born alive die before reaching their first birthday.
In addition, 37 percent of young men with secondary or higher education are unemployed and just 83 percent of boys and 79 percent of school-age girls are enrolled in primary school.
The infant mortality and malnutrition findings make clear that "the suffering of children due to war and conflict in Iraq is not limited to those directly wounded or killed by military activities," the report says.
For example, researchers found that diarrhea killed two out of every 10 children before the 1991 U.S.-led Gulf War against Saddam Hussein and four in 10 after the war.
Homes also took a major hit from the latest war, the study says. Military damage from U.S. air power or artillery fire to dwellings in the north of the country averages 25 percent of all rural households and in provinces such as Sulaimaniya, 49 percent of all rural homes were damaged.
The report also highlights disparities in access to and supply of services and infrastructure between town and countryside. The city of Fallujah was demolished by U.S. bombardment and a similar assault is now under way in Ramadi
Some 47 percent of urban households but only three percent of rural ones have a sewage connection. More than 80 percent of urban households are able to reach secondary schools, health centers, pharmacies, and police stations within 30 minutes while only 60 percent of urban households can reach a pharmacy or police station in that time.
Rural households tend to be more overcrowded and more frequently have open sewage nearby.
Overall, about eight out of every 10 Iraqis get water piped to their dwelling but in rural areas, only 43 percent of households have that service, according to the report.
Piped water is widely available but much of it is unsanitary and one-third of all Iraqi households receive an unstable supply.
This is part of a wider trend of infrastructure existing but not working, the report says.
While the regime of Saddam Hussein built most of the country's service networks, like electricity grids, sewage systems and water, these systems are widely in disrepair after three wars and ongoing insurgency, the report says.
Some 98 percent of all households are on the electric grid, for example, but 78 percent of them say the electricity supply is unstable.
Key facilities have been neglected for years as a result of international sanctions, which cut oil- rich Iraq off from most trade throughout the 1990s. Infrastructure also been damaged by the wars, the most recent of which was followed by severe looting and vandalism. The report concludes that refurbishing these systems is one of the biggest challenges to rebuilding Iraq.
The World Bank and United Nations have estimated that Iraq needs $36 billion for reconstruction over four years. U.S. firms are expected to get most of the work, if indeed it ever takes place in light of the insurgency, which seems to be escalating.
The report is a joint effort involving the UN Development Program (UNDP) and the Iraqi government. No other report has covered all of Iraq's provinces, or governorates, and previous data on the Kurdish region was particularly sparse, said Mehdi Al-Hafidh, who served as planning minister in Iraq's interim government.
The ministry oversees the government agency that conducted the surveys, the Central Organization for Statistics and Information Technology (COSIT). A team from COSIT conducted the fieldwork. The Norwegian non-governmental organization Fafo-AIS trained the team and analyzed its data.
"After a 10-year period during which the living conditions of the Iraqi individuals and families could not be statistically monitored, the Iraqi government and its UN partner has finally taken a large survey of living conditions in Iraq," he said. "Despite the difficult security situation in the country, COSIT was determined to implement the survey."
A UNDP spokesman said it was stunning that the report was even completed.
"The most noteworthy thing about the survey is that it was done," said the spokesman, Dan Shepard. "Iraq has not been listed in UNDP reports in some 15 years because there is no reliable data. That they were even able to do this with the security situation, it's quite an undertaking."
Staffan de Mistura, the UN secretary general's deputy special representative in Iraq, said the study "not only provides a better understanding of socio-economic conditions in Iraq, but it will certainly benefit the development and reconstruction processes."
The document would help "address the grave disparities between urban and rural (areas) and between governorates in a more targeted fashion," Mistura added.
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