WFP Regional Port Captain, Michael Larkins, is involved in the discharge of fully loaded large ships at the seven main entry ports situated across the West Coast of Africa. Currently he is based in Cotonou, Benin, where he oversaw this summer’s massive port operations for landlocked Niger, some 800 km to the north. Last week, after 30 years of on-and-off collaboration with WFP, Michael covered the final leg and looked in the beneficiaries’ eyes.
The Global Logistics Cluster recently activated a Cell in Benin, following the local government request for international assistance after the country was struck with the worst floods in Benin’s living memory. Due to heavy rains and the absence of a dry season, the water levels in rivers and lakes quickly surged and tens of thousands of people lost their homes and livelihoods, in particular in low lying lands and areas adjacent to rivers and lakes affecting 55 out of 77 municipalities in Benin.
In order to pull all resources available to increase the initial capacity of the Cluster to provide coordination services and logistics expertise, Michael was called in to join Cluster’s LRT team and perform water transport assessments in the Grand Popo area in the South West of Benin.
Grand Popo is only a two hour drive from Cotonou and the next day Michael was already on the ground with Lucien Jaggi, the Logistics Cluster Coordinator deployed from Rome HQ to run the Benin operation. The communes of Athieme and Grand-Popo, lying between the lake Aheme and the bay of Benin, are traditionally touristic areas and their people self-sufficient off a rich fish catch and nutritious coconut diet. Michael himself stayed there for some R&R with some colleagues a few years back: “It was awkward to be there again for work.” These communities, therefore, had not had a regular need of food assistance.
In a matter of hours, Lucien and Michael chased after reliable local maps, found a local river tour guide, rented a small flat bottom motor-boat and effectively set up the initial reconnaissance mission on the River Mono for the following day.
As Michael states, “The evaluation started in Grand Popo cruising about 10 kilometers down to the river mouth into the ocean – La Bouche de Roy. Normally, I board 50,000 metric tons bulk carriers and I found myself in quite an unusual situation on that 10hp powered boat.” The areas were badly hit by the floods and initial assessments showed that a few thousand people living in some of these coastal villages settled on a narrow 500 meter-wide stretch of land were cut off by the floods. “The flood damage was evident on both sides of the river. I could clearly see that the level of flooding had been decreasing over the last 15 days but the recent damage was quite extensive and you could see that the level of the water had been some 2 meters higher. The current river draft was about 3 meters.”
On this initial expedition, it was clear that relief cargo could go by small vehicles on the ocean side from Grand Popo to certain villages, but beyond the Bouche de Roy, it was impossible to use land transport and the only access to both sides of the river was by boat.
While assessing the accessibility of remotes villages, Michael realised that some had never been visited for any kind of assessment. For example in Loti, a village only accessible by boat, some children ran away scared seeing a foreigner as he was talking to the village representatives. This extension from the river assessment covered nine villages. Here is a presentation of Michael’s recon mission.
Back on shore, the LRT, increased by the volunteer efforts a young German, Tobias Stoehr, pulled together scattered information of the local logistics capacity such as storage warehouses, road constraints, vehicle availability, fuel access and the Cluster participants’ resources in place. Once streamlined, the collaboration among all involved humanitarian actors was noteworthy. Michael reported his findings to the WFP field monitors. “Those villages have lost all their food supplies in the floods. It is not the first time they are affected by floods, but this year it rained twice as much and the effects have been devastating for this vulnerable population”. A small side operation to deliver and distribute these remote villages was born. Support came from all sides, including collaboration with WFP’s country office in Cotonou and the Red Cross of Benin.
The next day, three larger river boats with about 8 metric tons of maize and vegetable oil “set sail” for Loti, an 18-kilometer journey down stream beyond La Bouche de Roy. Personnel from the Logistics Cluster, WFP and the Red Cross manned the mission. After 2.5 hours on the river, the boats were pushed for the last few hundred meters over flooded farmland to the village. Once there and led by the village Chiefs, the local villagers discharged all the cargo from the three boats, carried it to the central “square” in the village and neatly stacked it for distribution to three neighboring communities. “The area was totally isolated from any means of land transport and WFP was the first to reach the village with aid.”
Then Michael wrapped up his tale: “For me, this has been a wonderful experience. Normally, my work is in the ports discharging bulk cargo from WFP ships. I work in the critical point of the supply chain but never close to the beneficiaries. It was a rich emotional moment for me, and I do not easily get emotional. This experience has shown me the power of what we are doing with the final delivery of our cargo to the people where they need it most.”
For the full Logistics Cluster Benin reports and Information Management coverage please see: http://www.logcluster.org/ops/ben10a/