Bassikounou is a small village in the southeast of Mauritania near the border with Mali. 18 km southeast of Bassikounou is the refugee camp of M'bera where tens of thousands of Malian refugees are currently hosted after fleeing ongoing tensions in northern Mali. Upon crossing the Mauritanian border, Malian refugees arrive in Fassala, an even smaller town right on the border. After registration, refugees are transported to Bassikounou and M'bera camp, considered safer than Fassala due to the presence of the army and police.
Bassikounou and M'bera are in the extreme southeast of the country where the intense climate, poor road infrastructure and isolation hinders access. To increase access to such areas, WFP has established the UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) at the disposal of the humanitarian community. Since early April, personnel from UN agencies, NGOs and the Government have used this service. In addition to the base in Nouakchott, UNHAS had four destinations in Mauritania - Kiffa, Kaedi, Aioun and Nema. However, the drive from Nema to Bassikounou still took five hours and it was decided to make Bassikounou the fifth UNHAS destination. The challenge was building an airstrip in Bassikounou to allow for the landing of UNHAS flights.
The first airstrip in Bassikounou was built by UNHCR in 1992 duing another refugee crisis but was then abandoned after the emergency ended. In 2012, after 20 years of neglect, it was almost impossible to find the site of the original airstrip. Vegetation and the desert had erased much of the previous work.
A feasibilty study for the rehabilitation of the old airstrip site was carried out - the morphology of the ground and the characteristics of the soil were evaluated. The capacity of the land to evacuate water during the rainy season was also assessed.
In under a month, the WFP Logistics Cluster managed to carry out the necessary works to make the runway operational. The completed runway is 1200 metres long and 45 metres wide. The control tower was also rebuilt, water facilities established and the watch tower for security purposes set up. But achieving this goal has not been easy. Some of the challenges included : the lack of expertise and companies working in the area, security concerns and the risk of roads becoming inaccessible with the start of the rainy season in June.
The first official passenger flight took place on 12 June 2012. Before the airstrip and the air transport service was established, the route from Nouakchott to Bassikounou would have taken three days during the dry season and seven days during the rainy season. Now it is possible to reach Bassikounou in three hours.
The LET410 plane makes flights three times a week to Bassikounou and has a 17 passanger capacity. The schedule may shortly increase to include flights four times a week given demand.
Brian Commaroto-Roverini, a Political Officer at the US Embassy in Mauritania, was one of the first passengers on the newly operational flight to Bassikounou and expressed the general perspective of the humanitarian community now benefiting from the flight: "The flight to and from Bassikounou is a wonderful improvement to security and logistics. Taking the return flight from Bassikounou allowed us to extend our time in M'bera, visit a UNICEF class tent and talk with refugee families -- all things that would have been impossible had we needed to undertake the five hour drive back to Nema."
Over 90 humanitarian organizations benefit from the increased access provided by UNHAS flights to Bassikounou.
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