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WFP Airdrops Food In South Sudan: How Does it Work?

Dropping Food From The Sky

Bags of food fall from the sky as a plain unloads its humanitarian cargo in midair. This is an airdrop -- one of the most iconic images of humanitarian assistance, even though they don't actually happen very often. WFP started airdrops of food in South Sudan in March 2014, because of insecurity and other barriers to humanitarian access that made it otherwise impossible to reach many remote conflict-affected communities. In three days of airdrops, the plane in this photo delivered cereals and pulses to feed about 25,000 people for 15 days in Ganyiel, Unity State, one of the first locations to be reached by the airdrop operation.


But what happened before the hold opened and food bags plunged to the ground? And what happened after this shot? This series of photos will explain...

Trucks Before Planes

An airdrop operation often starts on land with trucks. These trucks, lined up on the road leading to WFP's main warehouse in Juba, South Sudan, bring in food from Kenya and Uganda. This warehouse receives about 50 truckloads of food a day.

Re-bagging At Warehouse

Here at WFP's main warehouse in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, the food to be airdropped is re-bagged in the days before the operation started.  To keep the bags from breaking open when they hit the ground, each bag of food is sealed inside three to five layers of extra-rugged bags.

Truck Feeds Plane

Trucks move the re-bagged food from the warehouse to the airport, where it is loaded into the plane.

Cargo Carrier

 At the Juba International Airport, the plane -- an Ilyushin-76 -- prepares to take off for the airdrop destination.

Approaching Ganyiel Drop Zone

The Ilyushin-76 airlifter is seen approaching Ganyiel, in Unity State, for an airdrop. The plane has to slow down and descend in altitude before it unloads its cargo. Normally it will fly between 150 meters and 300 metres above the drop zone.

Drop Starts in Ganyiel

The plane unloads its food cargo above the Ganyiel drop site.  WFP launched this major air drop operation in order to feed people affected by conflict in remote areas of South Sudan which are unreachable because of insecurity or and other obstacles.

Drop From Above Maban

WFP is also using airdrops -- along with airlifts and road transport -- to resupply isolated refugee camps in South Sudan where food stocks have dwindled. Here, food bags are seen sliding out of the the plane during a recent trial drop in Maban County, Upper Nile State, which is host to 125,000 refugees from the neighbouring Republic of Sudan.

Bags Falling

To reduce the force with which the bags hit the ground, the plane has descended to a low altitude and slowed to its minimum speed -- but the heavy bags of sorghum and pulses still hit the ground pretty hard. To avoid any accidents, WFP and its partners make sure that nobody is allowed to stray into the drop zone.

Bags On The Ground

Once the airdrop is over and the plane leaves the vicinity of the drop zone porters move in to collect the bags. These porters were collecting bags after an airdrop in Maban. 

Stacked & Ready For Distribution

Porters in Ganyiel collected the bags of food and stacked them to get ready for the food distributions to follow. In some places such as Maban County, where the refugee camps are far from the drop zone, the bags are packed in trucks and transported to a WFP storage facility ahead of distribution.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has started a series of urgently needed airdrops of food assistance in remote areas of South Sudan that have previously been unreachable because of insecurity and other obstacles. But how do airdrops work? What happens before -- and after -- the bags of food fall down to Earth?