NOUAKCHOTT – When UN World Food Programme Refugee Coordinator Francesca Manili made her first trip to Bassikounou in the southeast of Mauritania to visit the M’bera refugee camp, she faced the enormity of the task at hand.
“The camp is located in one of the most remote areas of Mauritania, in a region with high security risks and traditionally low levels of humanitarian activity. There was almost no capacity or infrastructure established when we arrived,” said Manili. “Nowhere to stay, nowhere to work, and most importantly, no storage areas for the thousands tons of food WFP needs to store in secure conditions to provide food assistance to the refugee population. We were literally starting from zero.”
The lack of capacity is compounded by the camp’s location in Hodh El Chargui, one of the most vulnerable regions of the country where 37% of the local population has been suffering from food insecurity and malnutrition.
The M’bera refugee camp has become the largest of the Sahel, hosting almost 90,000 refugees as of 10 July 2012. Between 600 and 800 additional refugees arrive daily.
Refugees began arriving in Mauritania at the end of January 2012 following armed clashes in northern Mali. WFP has since been racing to develop the infrastructure necessary for humanitarian assistance in an area where the extreme climate, poor road infrastructure and isolation hinder access.
WFP has established storage areas for WFP commodities, an office equipped with internet and air conditioning to counter Bassikounou’s average temperature hikes over 38°C (100°F), and a guest house for WFP staff and other humanitarian partners on mission.
Race to beat the rains
“Transporting goods across the 725 miles plus distance from Nouakchott to Bassikounou is normally a 5 day trip,” explained WFP Head of Logistics Robert Gillenwater. “With the start of the rainy season in June, this area becomes even more unreachable. The roads are impassable and the same distance can take up to a month to cover.”
“We knew, going into this period, that we needed to do everything possible to preposition 7,000 mt of food commodities before the start of the rains in June,” Gillenwater added. “Otherwise, we risked being unable to meet the pressing needs of Malian refugees over the 2 month period of the rainy season. It truly has been a race against time.”
Transportation is only one piece in the puzzle of delivering food assistance to the M’bera refugee camp. Another critical piece was where to store the 7,000 mt necessary to meet the needs of the refugees during the rainy season.
UPS humanitarian delivery
As a solution to the storage quandary, on June 3rd a UPS Humanitarian Flight landed at Nouakchott International Airport carrying 9 mobile storage tents (wiikhalls) for WFP in addition to non-food items for UNICEF.
The airlift intervention could not have arrived at a better time.
The wiikhalls were immediately loaded onto WFP trucks for urgent delivery to Bassikounou.
“The 9 wiikhalls are allowing WFP to store more than 5,400 mt of food commodities,” said Aziz Diallo, WFP Warehouse Manager who coordinated the arrival of the wiikhalls. “Combined with the 5 storage tents already in place, the total storage capacity available for the refugee operation is now 9,800 mt.”
The storage facilities are used for food commodities distributed through WFP’s refugee response. As Head of the Logistics Cluster, WFP is also offering storage assistance to other UN agencies and international NGOs operating in M’bera camp.
“The UPS airlift has delivered storage facilities to support not only WFP’s operations, but those of the entire humanitarian community,” said Gillenwater. “It is having a tremendous impact on the livelihoods of these victims of severe drought and civil unrest.”
WFP’s response includes general food distributions as well as the prevention and treatment of moderate acute malnutrition.
In July, WFP is providing each refugee with an individual food ration composed of rice, pulses, oil, sugar, salt and ‘super cereal’, which is a blend of fortified corn and soya, to a total of 90,000 people.
Since April 2012, WFP has distributed over 2,000 mt of commodities to meet the critical needs of refugees in M’bera camp. Four out of an expected six supplementary feeding centers (CRENAM) have been set up and are now fully operational 24 days per month.