‘It's like trying to hit a football field from the top of Everest' – why aid airdrops just don’t work
Ah, airdrops. Burly men in cargo pants heroically slinging bags of grain out of the back of cargo planes, gratefully received by the starving hordes below. They are a classic aid trope, beloved of movie directors. But they are also expensive, complicated and prone to failure – and that’s in best case scenarios.
Prepping for an airdrop
So what is actually involved? A lot of money, for starters. – the type most commonly used – come in at a very rough ballpark of $34,000 (£23,300) per sortie. And that’s in a benign environment: the more dangerous the situation, the higher the additional insurance and associated costs. Then there is the cost of the aid itself, plus a specialist and highly experienced staff – in the office, in the plane and on the ground. “These don’t grow on trees,” says Mike Whiting, an experienced humanitarian logistician and air drop veteran. “It’s a highly specialised skill not really used outside humanitarian work.”
The plane then needs formal overflight permission to fly so it isn’t shot at, which still doesn’t guarantee that it won’t be (anyone who wants to know how easily mistakes can happen just needs to look at the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines plane in the ). When conflicts involve multiple groups of people with guns, this gets a lot harder. There’s a good chance agencies will only be given access to areas controlled by the government, so then they need to decide if it’s ethically acceptable to provide assistance only to those on one side of a conflict.
In terms of what’s on board, airdrops can be used for anything that’ll survive the drop. So far in Syria, it’s been rice, chickpeas and beans, although the says they “aim to diversify”. Cooking oil, however – essential for food preparation – is trickier as it tends to explode. Roughly speaking, an Ilyushin II-76 can carry 30-35 tonnes. That’s not a lot in aid terms: the food WFP tried to drop into Deir ez-Zor, Syria in February (around 20 tonnes) would have fed 2,400 people for a month – when at least .
Then you need a team on the ground to receive the assistance, and to identify and set up a drop zone. This is necessary to avoid civilian casualties (falling 50kg sacks can cause serious damage and airdrops have killed civilians in Afghanistan and elsewhere), and ensure aid can be collected by ground teams. Drop zones need to be – at a minimum – the size of a football pitch; more commonly 200 metres by 1,000 metres. “Try to avoid swamps, livestock and people,” advises one logistician. Areas that are flat and visible from the air are ideal. Sites are generally marked (eg with large canvass crosses) so pilots can see them. However, finding a team to do this is tricky in , where the main reason airdrops are on the table is because it’s too insecure for agencies to have a ground presence.
Carrying out an airdrop
This is a very fraught business. The most immediate challenge presented by Syria is that it’s a conflict zone. This means that standard airdrops involving commodities in 50kg bags dropped from 1,000ft (300 metres) are out of the question – the . “Low level flights might end up in tears if any party starts shooting,” says one experienced logistician with considerable understatement. So planes need to fly above 25,000ft (7.6km) – bearing in mind that Everest is 29,000ft (8.8km) – to be out of range.
That is a huge height from which to drop anything, so that means a different kind of delivery is needed: large, one-tonne pallets with parachutes. Anything lighter will get scattered over kilometres, anything without parachutes will just smash into the ground. So technically complex is this challenge that Syria is currently the only place in the world attempting humanitarian drops from such a height.
This, in turn, makes the drop zones vastly more of a challenge, especially as in Syria many areas in need are besieged cities, in which large open areas are rare and parachutes can easily become entangled in buildings. Plus at this point, the plane is travelling over 270 kilometres an hour. That’s like trying to hit that football field, in a built up neighbourhood … from somewhere near the top of Everest, while zipping along in a Ferrari.
Even if all that goes right, the weather can change everything. Pallets, which can weigh a tonne each, shoot out of the plane and straight into fickle upper atmosphere winds. “They’re highly unpredictable at the best of times,” says Whiting, “and you haven’t exactly got Met offices in Syria”.
Given all this, it’s not surprising that the WFP’s first attempted high-altitude airdrop in Syria of ended up with 10 drifting off in flight, seven landing in no man’s land and four landing damaged after their parachutes failed. “It’s not lack of skill or professionalism on the part of the crew,” says Whiting.
Waiting at the drop zone will be the collection team, who will literally pick up the aid and manage the subsequent distribution. “If you drop aid without having a ground team in place for distribution, who is going to get it? Those with the strength to rush in and push and get it – and physically carry it,” says protection advisor Dr Michelle Sanson, who has worked with the WFP.
Being part of the collection team is no picnic either. Even during standard drops a lot of the aid will miss the drop zone, so being anywhere near it is quite hairy. “The difficult bit for me was trying to make sure that children and animals didn’t run into the drop zone at the last minute,” says Anna Shotton, who used to manage ground teams in South Sudan for WFP. “I often had to rely on the paramilitaries because the police were useless. One day the rebels came in guns blazing as I’d just received a drop and they started trying to take the pallets for building materials.” Then there’s transporting the food. “The first day we paid porters to carry sacks in but by the second day they had spent the money and were drunk so they wouldn’t come in,” she remembers. “That was tricky.”
So what would aid agencies prefer?
Two words: road access. It may be less glamorous, but it’s cheaper, far more efficient and easier to distribute fairly. The 30-35 tonnes carried in that $34,000 per mission Il-76 could fit into a large truck, without the losses involved in airdrops. And aid taken by land also means aid workers go too, and are able to meet the local population who are often as desperate for contact as they are for assistance. workers can listen to stories, take pictures, make assessments, and deliver enough assistance to be meaningful, unlike the aerial deliveries which are in such small amounts they can’t possibly meet the needs of thousands for any length of time.
None of this means that airdrops are impossible or should be ruled out. It is difficult, but possible – and in a situation in which people are dying of starvation, needs to be on the table as an option. Neither cost nor technical difficulty should be a consideration when it comes to saving lives, argue some of the humanitarians I spoke to.
But most aid workers are dubious – and for many, that’s because the reasons that aid drops are coming into the picture in Syria are entirely manmade. It’s not earthquake-destroyed roads or remote displacement creating the need for air transport, it’s deliberate use of siege tactics. Darayya, where people are literally starving, is just 10km from the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus that the UN uses as a base – but has been . Aid agencies have been plugging away for years to gain road access and fear a new focus on air delivery would mean those negotiations are compromised. “Systemising airdrops could undermine everything we’ve been trying to do for the past few years,” says Robert Mardini, regional director of operations for the near and Middle East for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
For those in the no camp, aid drops are a red herring, designed to distract from the fact that if the warring parties let them – as they should under international law - trucks could be there in a matter of days. As Ben Parker, a former UN humanitarian official in Syria, puts it: “This isn’t lifesaving, it’s political theatre,” .
Imogen Wall is a humanitarian aid worker and journalist who has worked in numerous major emergencies
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