Joint forces are planning a major military offensive to recapture the last major Iraqi city under Islamic State control - Mosul. Fierce fighting is already raging south of the city and the escalation in military activity is likely to have an even greater humanitarian toll than the battle for Fallujah, which forced 85,000 to flee their homes. Humanitarian organisations are already overwhelmed by the needs of those displaced within Iraq. The upcoming military offensive on Mosul, tipped by some to begin in late September, is expected to result in a humanitarian operation that will be the ‘largest and most complex in the world in 2016’.

Refugees from the battle of Fallujah (Photo: Hamit Huseyin/Getty Images)

Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, has been under IS control since 2014. The battle for Mosul is anticipated to be far more complicated than other battles against IS in Iraq. This is in part due to the large civilian population that has remained in the city and could be trapped by the fighting. Up to 2.5 million people are estimated to be inside the likely area of the Mosul military operations, while 55,000 people have already been displaced in the lead-up.

As fighting intensifies in Iraq, the numbers of people forced from their homes is exploding. Humanitarian actors were completely overwhelmed in responding to the sudden displacement of people in the wake of the battle for Fallujah over May and June. Critical gaps in funding, and inadequate planning and coordination meant that displaced families, who had already been through five months of siege, were left with insufficient food, water, shelter and medical assistance, along with services such as psycho-social support and child protection.

We need to learn from the Fallujah experience and ensure there is adequate and flexible funding available, planning has been sufficient, and emergency supplies are pre-positioned to respond to the spike in humanitarian needs that will result from the upcoming military offensive on Mosul.

With fighting around the city already underway, there is a limited window for planning and actual implementation of preparation activities. Already people fleeing Mosul are ending up in overcrowded camps where they are sleeping in the open, sharing tents with several other families, and have poor access to clean water. Serious protection threats – particularly for children – are growing in these camps.

In July the UN launched an emergency appeal for Mosul to prepare and respond to any large-scale displacement. This appeal outlines the UN’s plans for ‘best’, ‘medium’ and ‘worst’ cases with costs varying with the number of people involved. Scenarios range from 300,000 people displaced for three months, requiring $US143 million of humanitarian funding, to one million people displaced for one year, requiring $US1.8 billion of funding. 

The plan also estimates two and a half months of preparations will cost $US284 million in order for humanitarian organisations to be ready to respond.

While the UN planning is welcome, it if had begun earlier it would have given the humanitarian sector and donors more time to prepare for the looming humanitarian fallout from this fighting. Additionally, current plans do not consider the humanitarian needs of the 70,000 people who are expected to flee to north eastern Syria from Mosul. This means these people are unlikely to receive the anticipated humanitarian assistance they will require.

The situation in Iraq is complex and evolving as the front lines shift, military offensives start and end, and civilians move to find safety elsewhere in the country, with some crossing the border into Syria. While the 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan for Iraq takes into consideration the essential needs of millions of Iraqis who have already been affected by the crisis, it does not consider the full impact of large-scale military offensives and subsequent displacement, such as those in Fallujah and Mosul. As such, it is essential that donors fully support both the development and implementation of preparation plans and fund additional ‘emergency appeals’ in response to anticipated humanitarian catastrophes.

Since 2014, the Australian Government has contributed a total of $60 million to the crisis in Iraq. With the Mosul offensive looming, it’s essential that Australia continues to ensure funding is directed towards humanitarian assistance.

Of course, money alone will not fully address the needs of affected people. Some of those who fled the Fallujah fighting, often families with children, were caught in crossfire, triggered improvised explosive devices, and drowned when attempting to cross the Euphrates. States involved in the conflict, including Australia, need to learn from this, and work with the Iraqi government and local authorities to create safe exit routes for civilians and help construct additional camps at a safe distance from the conflict. The capacity of local authorities to ensure that international standards are adhered to and maintained should also be enhanced.

But we have very little time to get these plans in place. Action must start now if we are to ensure the needs of those displaced from Mosul are met. Donors need to commit to providing funding for humanitarian assistance within a clear timeframe. And funding must be flexible enough to allow the UN and aid agencies to adapt to the ever-changing dynamics on the ground.

As it stands, humanitarian organisations do not have the funds required to prepare for the Mosul offensive. A failure to act now could have catastrophic consequences for the people of Mosul, and for Iraq.