From Desert to Airstrip in Mauritania

Humanitarian response is in many ways an intricate web of people, equipment and infrastructure. Roads, rivers and rail act as our connections, transporting aid workers and cargo across countries and regions. Without one of these connections, the system may function, but not as efficiently as possible. Vulnerable areas can be left off the grid, and aid workers may find it difficult to reach people in need.

Some of these connections are built by governments, others exist as highways and trade corridors, but some are created out of necessity.

A forgotten airstrip in the middle of the Mauritanian desert was one of these missing connections. Nearly one month ago, Logistics Cluster Officer Max Cosci arrived in the small dusty town of Bassiknou, where he would lend his logistics expertise to the rehabilitation of the airstrip, situated in Mauritania’s south-eastern corner. At 18km away fromdry and barren town of Bassiknou a refugee camp hosting approximately 65,000 Malians, the restoration of this airstrip would create another important connection for UNHAS -- acting as a humanitarian lifeline and easing the humanitarian operations of today and those in the future.

Without the airstrip aid workers from various humanitarian organizations, including UN agencies and NGOs, would travel long distances to reach Bassiknou, and driving isn’t always as simple as it seems – particularly in the fast-approaching rainy season when  many of the vital roads will transform into mud, or become otherwise impassable by the rising water levels. In addition to road conditions, security is also precarious, with constant presence of armed groups and rebels.

With the nearest airstrip in the village of Nema over 200km away, it was crucial that the Bassiknou airstrip be brought back to life. Given Bassiknou’s remote location, there would be challenges for sure, and no one would know those better than Max.

When he arrived, the airstrip could hardly be labelled as anything but dirt and sand, dotted with shrubs. Hiring a team of over 50 local labourers, they started to sculpt the area – clearing vegetation that cdry mauritanian desertrept in over the years, smoothing out the dirt into a 1,200 meter runway, and constructing a new control ‘tower’.  Sourcing all of his heavy equipment from the capital, Nouakchott, Max worked with his team of 56 workers, 7 drivers and 5 trucks, to construct the first phase of what will become a functional airstrip, a connection for the humanitarian community to the region, and passable year-round.

The first phase of the project would ensure that light aircraft were able to land – meaning smaller planes, which can transport around 19 passengers. Phase two of the project will allow for heavy aircraft, and subsequently more passengers. WFP will also be able to ensure that specialized nutrition products can be transported here in times of great urgency.

With the Phase One completed in just three weeks, the first UNHAS plane will transport the first group of humanitarian aid workers to Bassiknou.  As work continues to be done by Max and his team on this latest humanitarian connection, aid workers will now, more easily, move into the area to better assist those in need.

All photos credited to WFP/Max Cosci