UN World Food Programme

Rain – And Sometimes Sorghum – Falls From South Sudan’s Sky

Food from the skies (Copyright: WFP/Katherine Ely)

During the rainy season when roads are impassable, airdrops are the only real way of delivering much-needed cereals for refugees in remote Yida.

“All stations, all stations, we have a live run,” crackles the radio voice of Miguel Cussoca, an air transport officer with the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service.

Seconds later, an Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane looms into view over the tops of the hardwoods at the edge of the airstrip. Its growling engines slow to allow it hit the drop zone with its first load: 10 metric tons of sorghum, tripled packed in 50 kg bags to protect them from the impact of tumbling more than 200 metres through the air.  

With the plane nearly over an “X” marked on the mud airstrip, bags are jettisoned from the rear ramp of the aircraft and land – whump, whump, whump – along a strip of ground twice the length of a football field.  By the time the dust has settled, hundreds of WFP-marked bags lie scattered in the dirt, a few spilling their contents onto the sandy soil but most intact.

After two more runs, the aircraft heads back to its Juba base and some 680 bags litter the drop zone. A WFP truck loaded with labourers emerges from the bush. It takes nearly three hours to load the bags and move them to the tented warehouses along the airstrip.

By early October, more than 50 airdrops of WFP food to Yida refugee camp had taken place and the process was half completed. During the dry season, food is trucked in from Juba, but 90 percent of South Sudan’s roads become impassable during the rains.

“In such a logistically challenging environment, humanitarians are forced to use costly measures to ensure the health of the refugees,” says Katherine Ely of the WFP-led Logistics Cluster, which assists the whole aid community with the movement of humanitarian goods. “Yida has been completely cut off by road since June and the only way to bring in life-saving supplies now is via air. We’ve been using helicopters to move non-food items such as mosquito nets and medical supplies but we hope the roads will open soon.” 

Yida is host to more than 64,000 Sudanese refugees, most of them fleeing conflict in the Nuba Mountains. The sprawling camp continues to receive an additional 1,000 refugees per week.  Agencies in the camp anticipate the numbers will significantly increase once the dry season comes.