A US coalition-backed operation to take the city back from Isis could start as soon as mid-October, but humanitarian response planning has been woefully underfunded to deal with the scale of the impending manmade crisis, several agencies confirmed to The Independent.
“The scope of the required response is something we can’t handle,” Sandra Black, communications officer for the Iraqi branch of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said. “It’s simply too little, too late.”
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the organisation’s humanitarian response branch, is expecting 200,000 people to flee in the first few days of an attack to retake the city, but says the worst case scenario could be up to 700,000 people. Up to 1.5 million people in the city could be in need of aid.
Currently, agencies on the ground have supplies for about 100,000 of the estimated 200,000 people who will initially need help. “It’s a race against the clock now,” said Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq.
“Setting up emergency infrastructure in the 13 priority sites the government and Iraqi security forces have identified is our top priority. Levelling and clearing these sites, grading them for drainage and staking out plots is as much as we can probably do in the days in front of us.”
Mobile health clinics and non-food supplies will have to arrive in a secondary wave of humanitarian assistance provided by partners on the ground.
While the UN and its partner agencies have been preparing for the humanitarian fallout from an attempt to retake Mosul since February of this year, “it’s been very difficult to plan without knowing what's going to happen militarily," Ms Grande said. Efforts have also been hampered by a major funding shortfall.
Although 10 million Iraqis currently need some form of humanitarian assistance, only 54 per cent of the UN’s 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan for Iraq has been funded. More than half of the projects included in the appeal have been forced to close or could not start due to lack of funding, UN OCHA says.
An emergency flash appeal for a minimum of $285m (£224m) for the Mosul response was put out in July, but to date has only managed to raise half of the necessary funds for the most basic of emergency responses.
Donor governments have been slow to contribute to the Mosul flash appeal because the Syrian crisis crowds out everything, a senior UN official said.
“It feels as if the donors don’t care that much about Iraq,” an aid official told The Independent. “Donors have limited budgets and they worry that the emergency sites will turn into permanent camps. I think that right now we’re all realising just how many lives are at stake. Everyone is asking what they can do. What can we say except: ‘You should have given us money when we asked for it?’”
IOM already works with more than 3.3 million Iraqis displaced by fighting since Isis took over almost a third of the country in the summer of 2014. Their resources have been stretched by almost 100,000 extra people who have been forced to flee their homes since July, when fighting stepped up in the Mosul corridor, the organisation’s latest emergency tracking figures show.
The US-backed Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga forces have retaken Isis-held villages around Mosul in the last few months and have now established secure supply lines to and from their base in Qayara, about 80 kilometres away, ahead of the offensive on the city itself.
The swift shock-and-awe capture of Mosul – Iraq’s second largest city, at the time home to two million people – established Isis as a serious military contender in the Syrian civil war and its spillover. Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of the so-called caliphate from a Mosul mosque shortly afterwards.
It is estimated that between 1.2-1.5 million people are still trapped in the city, which will be the scene of heavy fighting.
Underground activists resident in Mosul have said Isis is prepared for battle with a well-established network of tunnels to conceal and move supplies, artillery and fighters. It has also built trenches, a moat, and sealed off certain districts using huge concrete blockades across main roads, partly to divide and conquer residents who could rebel against the group when the Iraqi army arrives, and partly to concentrate civilians into pockets for use as human shields.
The presence of so many civilians has greatly complicated military planning. While several sources say that the Iraqi military has learned lessons from the liberation of Fallujah in June on how to protect them, the battle to free Mosul is still the most complex operation it will have ever undertaken.
It is also unclear if residents are aware of the chaos that will await them if they make it out of Mosul alive.
In an effort to stem the expected stream of people, the Iraqi government has dropped leaflets on Mosul for the past few weeks warning residents to stay inside their homes rather than flee. On Tuesday, a new Iraqi radio station was set up and broadcast into the city. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi made an address in which he promised that details on safe escape routes and emergency assistance would be provided once the offensive begins.
“People in Mosul have very few good options whether they leave or stay,” Renad Mansour, a fellow with Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa programme said. “Within the city, Isis is growing paranoid and has carried out mass executions cracking down on dissent,” he added. “In that sense the violence has started already.”
Isis has faced several military setbacks in recent months, withdrawing from the Iraqi city of Fallujah and strongholds in northern Syria. Mosul is currently the largest city still under its control, and its loss will herald Isis’s defeat in Iraq.
Even after the battle is over, what happens next is unclear, Mr Mansour says. Tensions are currently soaring between the Turkish and Iraqi governments on how Mosul, a city previously home to Sunni, Shia, Turkmen, Christian and Yazidi populations, will be governed after Isis is removed.
“It is possibly a premature operation,” Mr Mansour said. “Everyone is anticipating the worst case scenario, but at the same time this is a battle that needs to happen.”
“The stakes could not be higher,” Bruno Geddo of the UN’s High Commission for Refugees told reporters in Geneva last week.
“We have learned a lot of lessons from Fallujah,” he said. “The first lesson is that it is too late if you receive funding once the crisis hits the television screen.”