In Mali, even at the best of times, poor infrastructure and washed out roads in the rainy season make access to remote communities a constant challenge for humanitarian workers. Add to that the ongoing security concerns of the past two years, including frequent rocket-fire in the North and IED (improvised explosive device) explosions on roads, and humanitarian access can become very difficult.
BAMAKO – In March of 2012, a military coup d’état left a political vacuum in the North of Mali, allowing non-state armed groups to forcefully take control of several regions, impeding humanitarian access. In early April, WFP’s northern sub-offices were ransacked, six vehicles were stolen, and some 2,000 metric tonnes of food were looted from warehouses. Nearly 100 WFP staff and their dependents were subsequently evacuated from the North.
Enter the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS)
When access by road to the North became too dangerous in Mali, UNHAS started offering humanitarian flights as far north as they could safely go. In the beginning (April 2013), that meant Mopti; but, as international forces arrived and pushed back armed groups, UNHAS began providing flights to Timbuktu, Gao and, eventually, Kidal.
Regular Flights to Irregular Destinations
In early 2014, at the request of its humanitarian clients, UNHAS added flights to what we call ‘secondary airfields’ or, perhaps more accurately, ‘bush tracks’, to the northern sites of Niafounké, Goundam, Ménaka and Douentza. With the help of WFP partner, Save the Children, two of these remote airfields (Niafounké and Goundam) were repaired and are being maintained to meet safety standards.
Flights to remote, difficult-to-reach areas not only make it possible for humanitarian workers to expand their reach, but also allow donor countries like Canada to monitor the results of their projects.
“Here in Mali, the Canadian embassy staff have used UNHAS services to travel to field sites to monitor our projects and speak with the individuals and communities reached, which is essential to ensuring that we are achieving development results.”
Marc-André Fredette, Head of Cooperation, Canadian Embassy, Mali
Helping Humanitarians Stay Safe After Tragedy
On May 29, 2014, a Norweigan Refugee Council vehicle was travelling on the road from Timbuktu to Goundam when it hit an IED. The two aid workers in the vehicle were killed as a result of the explosion. Following this terrible event, and taking into account the rising frequency of similar events, additional routes were added between Goundam and Timbuktu and between Niafounké and Timbuktu – allowing humanitarians to avoid these increasingly-dangerous roads.
Reduced Flight Schedule
In September 2014, after multiple calls for additional funding failed, UNHAS was forced to remove flights to Ménaka and Douentza from its roster and to reduce the number of planes it uses. This service reduction will have significant consequences for the humanitarian community in Mali and the people they serve – particularly in the country’s North.
“Up until now, we have been carrying about 1,000 passengers per month and this number has been on the rise,” says Eric Moussard, head of UNHAS in Mali. “With the reduced flight schedule and smaller planes, we will only be able to carry, maybe 600 or 700, maximum, per month. Basically, we are going to have to start turning people away – people who cannot do their jobs without safe access to the North by air.” he added.
Funding: 2014 and Beyond
As with all WFP funding, UNHAS is funded on a voluntary basis by member states. It recovers some costs through booking fees; however, this alone is not enough to sustain the service.
In 2014, UNHAS has been able to serve the humanitarian community in Mali thanks to generous support from Canada, the European Commission, Ireland, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Most recently, thanks to a generous contribution from the European Union, UNHAS will be able to continue at its reduced service level until the end of the year.
The humanitarian air service continues to be a vital tool – particularly for those working in Mali’s most remote and vulnerable communities. To ensure UNHAS is able to continue serving the humanitarian community in Mali next year, it requires approximately US$6 million for its 2015 budget.