UN World Food Programme

Wings of Hope in the Philippines

This medical team from International Medical Corps were passengers on an UNHAS flight going from Guiuan to Cebu. They have been working in emergency medical and primary care facilities throughout some hard-hit areas of Eastern Samar, supporting the Government and the people of the Philippines. Copyright: WFP/Leighla Bowers

More than 1,030 aid workers have taken a flight with the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) since the operation began nearly three weeks ago. They have flown to 18 remote locations and islands on 160 flights to reach the millions displaced in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.

Managed by WFP, UNHAS provides flights at no cost to the entire humanitarian community and currently has three aircraft based in Cebu, ensuring daily rotations to many affected areas.
Chief Air Transport Officer Jared Komwono heads up UNHAS operations in the Philippines. Besides the hundreds of locations UNHAS serves for humanitarians around the world, Jared explains that what sets UNHAS apart from any other commercial airline is their mission: to fly to remote destinations where others do not usually go.

“Our operations are based on the fundamental idea that we transport people who help save lives,” says Jared. With no other way to reach isolated communities spread across remote islands and barangays, aid workers can rely on UNHAS to faciliate access, helping them to carry out their life-saving work.

Humanitarians like Caroline Austin, a Communications Advisor for the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), are also doing important work with communities based in many affected populations across the Visayas region. Together with the Philippines Red Cross, Caroline and her team are working on developing a two-way feedback mechanism to monitor the effectiveness of their humanitarian assistance through cellular networks, meaning that people can send and receive text messages with important information related to the assistance they are receiving. Should there be any issues or gaps, this is an opportunity for IFRC to improve the way they assist affected communities.

Health is also an essential part of an emergency response.  Ina Bluemel of the World Health Organization (WHO) and her team are working hand-in-hand with the Department of Health in Guiuan to provide support and disease surveillance.

“Transport is a vital component of disease surveillance when it comes to sending specimens off for testing at laboratory facilities,” explains Ina. “This allows us to ensure a proper response for outbreak prevention.”  In the case of the Haiyan response, specimens need to quickly reach labs in either Cebu or Manila from remote locations.

UNHAS provides air links from isolated areas to Cebu, meaning that should a specimen need to be rapidly transported for testing, this option is available. In other parts of the world, Ina and many humanitarians like her have been UNHAS passengers.

“I've being working in humanitarian medicine for ten years – both during emergencies and in remote, difficult-to-reach areas. The efficiency and effectiveness of our work depends on our teams being able to reach our beneficiaries, and on many occasions, UNHAS has been the only reliable air service provider,” says Ina. As long as no viable commercial air option exists for reaching isolated areas and remote communities, UNHAS will continue to provide a humanitarian lifeline for those who can truly save lives.

Photo credit: WFP/Anthony Lim