What Happens During an Airdrop?

Unless you've been entirely disengaged from the news over the last few days, you'll have read about the desperate situation in Iraq. Basic aid is being given—via airdrops—to thousands of Iraqis in Mount Sinjar who are hiding in the mountains from...

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Aug 13 2014, 11:24am

Unless you've been entirely disengaged from the news over the last few days, you'll have read about the desperate situation in Iraq. Basic aid (MRES—meals ready to eat—water and filters) is being given—via airdrops—to thousands of Iraqis in Mount Sinjar who are hiding in the mountains from jihadist fighters. There have been some heartbreaking scenes of desperate scrambles for survival.

Outside of Iraq, though, there are myriad communities reliant on aid from the air. The people of South Sudan are facing an ongoing battle or survival. They are the world's newest nation and have been engulfed in a vast humanitarian crisis ever since the violence broke out at the end of last year. People are in desperate need of basic support—food, shelter and clean water. The Red Cross is working to provide aid to the people of South Sudan and its neighbouring countries, which involves making airdrops again for the first time in 20 years.

I spoke to Mike Goodhand, Head of International Logistics for The Red Cross, to get a better understanding of what happens during an airdrop—one of the least-favoured ways of giving aid.

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All photographs courtesy of Henry Makiwa at The British Red Cross.

MUNCHIES: When was the last Red Cross airdrop? Mike Goodhand: The previous airdrop was northern Afghanistan in 1994, so 20 years ago. The airdrops we are doing now are just in South Sudan.

Can you explain, in layman's terms, how it works? It's a basic question of access, really. We are airdropping there now because it's the rainy season and the roads leading to those needing aid have turned into quagmires. It's all wet, black mud. We're mainly distributing seeds—what, and when we drop them is the result of programmes developed between the Red Cross's on-the-ground volunteers in the area and the beneficiaries of supply. They say what they need, and when, and what they need to prioritise.

So what you're doing in South Sudan is heavily dependant on that on-the-ground relationship? Yes. Because it's not only about that first shipment of relief, it's about how long it's going to last them, when we'd come back with a second drop, and what would be in that. If you are giving people food—or the means to grow food, from seed—you need to know how long it's going to last. The people in South Sudan are finding some provisions for themselves, too. It's all down to basic, good programming. The people there are making a lot of investment in preparing the land and soil, and are not going to do that unless the seeds are going to become available during planting season.

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Is an airdrop always the last resort when trying to get aid to people? Absolutely. It's always the last resort. Not least because of costs. You can carry 20 tonnes of food in a truck (including the weight of packaging) and it might cost $500. Running a Hercules C130 aircraft carrying the same weight will cost around £10,000. Pilots don't like doing this—flying high and fast is optimal—and there's only very few aircraft configured to have stuff fly out the back of them.

What is the margin of collateral damage on an airdrop with things like burst packaging? If the context allows the degree of planning you need for a successful airdrop then it can be remarkably effective. Damage like bags bursting is in the margin of one percent, if the drops are done by people who know what they're doing.

Does the right communication with the beneficiaries means there's no mad grabbing for the food once it's been dropped? Right. They agree a date, time and place with the beneficiaries and ensure that the drop zone is left clear of people. It's like a rolling thunder when packages start to drop down and you have to explain to the people how it's going to work. You want to allay their fears, explain how everyone is going to get what they need.

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There have been horrific images coming from Iraq over the last few days, with people scrambling on board the aircrafts to retrieve aid. What you're seeing in the mountains of Iraq is very different to the situation in South Sudan. There are fewer people on the ground there and the people affected are in need of the absolute basics of survival—water, containers and filters so they can use whatever water they come across and make it safe to drink. It's important to say that, even though it looks chaotic when you see these young, fit lads crowding around the aircraft, the people taking the items are still going to be taking it back to their family, tribe or clan. That's what the cameras don't show. The chaotic scramble scene does a disservice to those people in need.

What else is in these emergency supply drops? They will also be receiving MREs—meals in foil pouches that are ready to eat or be boiled in water for ten minutes, identical to those used in the military. There's also things like high-protein biscuits being distributed, which aren't the most palatable things but are high in protein and carbohydrate to keep them going. Lots of people on the mountains don't have pots, pans, knives or forks.

Where are these MREs produced? Meals ready to eat, or HDR (Humanitarian Daily Rations), are produced around the world primarily by suppliers supplying their own military. We access the same food supplies. The content varies depending on where they are being dropped. For example, no pork in Muslim countries and a guarantee of halal meat. The high-protein biscuits used to be predominantly made in Western Europe but places have opened now in places like Nairobi, Kenya, which is fantastic. Every penny we save on transport means better value for money.

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Presumably they're designed to have a long shelf life. Yes. There's no verdant green broccoli stalks in there, but I think they taste pretty good. Some are designed to last up to five years—predominately because of the way the military use them. They need to stockpile. But although we use the same suppliers as the military, and the came contents, the packaging on the MREs is very different. We want to establish differentiation.

Some people receiving the meals will be illiterate. How do you ensure they'll know what to do with them? Well, for those who have had the benefit of an education, we will specify on the packaging what the contents are and their best before date, just reassuring them that it's very safe to eat. For those without literacy, we may use a series of pictures­—part cartoon, part diagram—to show how to open them, heat them and say what's inside. It will be clear to everyone how the items should be used. We tailor them very closely.

Aside from religion-related food variations, are the meals tailored to the area they are being dropped in? Yes. If it's an area where they are used to eating spiced food, or lentil-based daal dishes, we will try and replicate that. We don't want to give them alien tastes—we want to give them something as close as possible to what they'd eat in normal circumstances. Anything that can bring familiarity and comfort in a fraught, desperate situation. Psychologically that can make a huge difference.

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How long do you anticipate humanitarian aid being needed in Sudan? We've seen humanitarian need there since I've been with the Red Cross, which is 25 years. It's one of our longest running humanitarian operations. I would love to think that there's a solution around the corner but I think there'll always be people in Sudan needing aid. It's a very food insecure area—they continue to get droughts and crops will continue to fail. We try to support with seeds and irrigation but it's an enormous task.

Thanks for talking to me.