The battle for Mosul has begun. The city of 1.5 million — Iraq’s second largest — fell to ISIS in 2014. Now, a combination of Iraqi military forces, Iran-backed shiite militias, and Kurdish peshmerga are readying for an assault. They are being backed by US airpower and special forces on the ground.

The battle for Mosul will be a key turning point in the fight against ISIS. It is the last major city in Iraq under their control, and the liberation of Mosul could be the beginning of the end of ISIS in Iraq.

But there is one big problem.

A battle for Mosul could create a massive humanitarian crisis for which the international community is unprepared. Victory will be hollow if the newly liberated languish in hunger and disease.

Yesterday, as the Iraqi government announced the offensive, the top UN Humanitarian relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien warned that “As many as one million people may be forced to flee their homes in a worst-case scenario.” But the capacity to absorb these newly displaced is relatively miniscule. Emergency camps in the vicinity can only provide assistance to up to 60,000 people.  Should civilians manage to escape Mosul during the battle, most will have no place to go.

Aid agencies have been warning for months that the fallout from an offensive would the largest and most complex humanitarian operation of the year. Yet so far, the international community has not provided sufficient backing for the humanitarian response.  “Despite generous contributions from donor countries, funding has been insufficient to prepare fully for the worst-case scenario,” O’Brien stated yesterday.

In June, as it became clear that an attack on Mosul was being prepared, the UN launched a flash appeal of $280 million to prepare for the humanitarian fallout. It only received a fraction of those funds. “Until very recently, we had only about 30% of those funds,” Lise Grande, the top UN humanitarian official in Iraq told reporters today. “The kinds of prepositioning and preparations we needed to do, we did simply did not have the funding.”

“Of the million [who might flee under the worst case scenario] more than 700,000 would need shelter. They would depend on us for assistance,” says Grande. As of now, there are six emergency sites that can hold up to 60,000 people. Additional sites will be added in the coming weeks to handle over 200,000 people, says Grande.

 

Even before the Mosul offensive, the humanitarian crisis in Iraq was one of the worst in the world.

Some 10 million people are in need of assistance, of which the United Nations has targeted 7 million civilians in a humanitarian response plan that security conditions would permit them to access. However, humanitarian agencies have only received 58% of the $861 million funding required to meet that goal. “Our funding streams have been insufficient and unpredictable,” said Grande. “Already the crisis has outpaced our capacity to respond.”

Grande says contributions toward the UN’s “flash appeal” for Mosul have picked up in recent days. But humanitarian agencies still do not have the funding they need to mount an adequate response. So far, only $155 million out of that $284 million flash appeal has been contributed.

“It’s just not enough money for what we are facing,” says Grande. “It’s not enough.”

 

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