First helicopters boost logistics effort

An Mi8T helicopter with an extended loading ramp can carry as much as three metric tonnes of food and other critical supplies.
(Airforce Technology)

The first helicopters contracted by the UN World Food Programme (WFP), offering a vital humanitarian lifeline to scores of cyclone survivors in the Ayeyarwady Delta, arrived in Yangon, the former capital, on 22 May.

The helicopters will be able to carry as much as three metric tonnes (MT) of food and other critical supplies to victims deep inside the delta.

The first of 10 mostly Mi8T helicopters came from Malaysia; the remaining aircraft will arrive from various locations across the globe in Bangkok, where they will be reassembled before being flown into Myanmar.

While costly to operate, helicopters played a significant role in the relief effort during the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan and last year’s cyclone in Bangladesh.

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“In a country like this, helicopters can certainly play a big role given the access issues, as well as the need to quickly move relief into areas that previously hadn’t been accessed and therefore not properly assessed,” Mathew Hollingsworth, a WFP logician and head of the logistics cluster, which provides interagency logistics services, told IRIN in Bangkok.

More than 80,000 people were killed and 50,000 left missing when Cyclone Nargis, a category four storm, hit the country on 2 May. Of the estimated 2.4 million people affected, most live in the delta area, but only 500,000 have received any international assistance, says the UN.

Logistics strategy

While helicopters will undoubtedly play a significant role in the overall logistics of the relief effort, they are only part of the equation. More boats are needed in the delta areas, as are trucks.

However, much of the delta’s transport infrastructure was badly affected by the cyclone, including roads, barges and boats that generally account for much of the area’s commercial traffic.

WFP has already secured a large number of barges – each with a capacity of between 200MT and 600MT – so that goods can be taken in by trucks, and then offloaded on to barges in the delta where they can be distributed along the inland waterways.

“We’re able to access many areas by road. Bridges that were damaged are being fixed, etc; however, with the monsoon season coming, roads affected by the cyclone will [deteriorate] as the rains increase,” Hollingsworth warned.

As part of the overall logistics operations, Yangon remains the main entry point for aid, primarily by air, but road and sea access is reopening.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A map of Myanmar and surrounding countries highlighting the Irrawaddy delta, which accounts for about 65 percent of Myanmar’s annual rice production

“The port is beginning to become operational,” Hollingsworth said. “We’ll be expecting to see more assistance coming in by sea” as further debris from the cyclone is removed.

WFP provides air deliveries into the country, whereupon goods can be trucked to trans-shipment points inside the country. “We receive from the airport and then move commodities out of the airport to consolidation centres where we then reload them on to trucks and barges directly into the Ayeyarwady Delta area, as well as distribute in and around Yangon,” he said.

WFP has three barges based in Yangon with a total capacity of 1,650MT, and another in the town of Pathein in the west of the delta.

Since the cyclone, goods have been moved to eight townships around Yangon for distribution, and to another seven townships in the delta.

As part of that effort, four logistics hubs have been established or are being set up in Yangon, Labutta, Bogali, Pyapon and Pathein.

“This is within WFP’s responsibility as lead of the logistics cluster,” he said.

Photo: International Federation
Homes in many districts have taken a battering and flood waters in places are showing little sign of receding, making them all but impossible to reach by land

Big role for Bangkok

Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport became operational this week as the main staging centre for global relief to Myanmar. “Bangkok will figure quite highly in the whole operation,” Hollingsworth confirmed, describing Yangon as the main logistics hub and Bangkok as the support.

“From there, we can then run full charters and UN aircraft into Myanmar as needed. This will ensure we don’t have a congested airport in Yangon. By establishing a consolidation hub in Bangkok, goods can effectively be called forward as needed, rather than jamming Yangon’s already limited capacity,” he explained.

To date, WFP says it has dispatched enough rice to feed 340,000 people for two weeks.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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