Logistics in South Sudan - a tale of persistence and creative thinking

04 June 2018
Humanitarian Logistics in South Sudan


 It’s 9:00 am in the Logistics Cluster office in Juba, South Sudan. The team there have their heads together with colleagues from WFP Logistics, Nutrition, Emergency Unit and UNHAS, planning the destinations and routings for thirty WFP cargo flights that will cross the country tomorrow.

Equipped with a cup of coffee and her trusty airfield map, our colleague Jessie is putting the final touches on the Logistics Cluster flight plans. She is the Logistics Officer responsible for air and barge operations for the Logistics Cluster in South Sudan.

Today she will walk us through her work and how she got here. 

Jessie, can you tell us what you were doing just now? 

I was finalising tomorrow’s flight plans with our UNHAS colleagues. – She must have seen it in my face I was puzzled, because she immediately continues – You see, South Sudan is roughly the size of Texas, but it only has 200 km of paved roads and the rest of the main roads throughout the country are dirt.

This infrastructure can’t sustain the heavy load of the humanitarian assistance required for the response. We are talking 7 million people affected by insecurity, hunger, disease outbreaks, insufficient access to clean water and safe shelter, scattered all across the country. Humanitarian responders are left with limited options to deliver lifesaving cargo.

While some road access is possible, this is generally limited to the six-month dry season, as most roads become completely impassable during rainy seasons. Therefore, air and river transport are often the only means to deliver humanitarian cargo to remote locations, cut off from any road access.

The Logistics Cluster facilitates air transport with three dedicated assets — two helicopters and one fixed-wing plane – made available by WFP Aviation, bringing large quantities of relief cargo to hard-to-reach locations.

Each day, I receive and register all the requests for air and barge movements from humanitarian organisations and then plan the daily flights with the colleagues from UNHAS, the United Nations Humanitarian Aviation Service, also managed by WFP. 

And how is the planning done? 

To plan the flights, I must take into consideration the priority locations determined by the Inter-Cluster Working Group, the cargo available, if emergency response teams are in place in the deep field locations to receive the flights, the flight times to various destinations, and the daily food drops WFP Logistics and the Emergency Unit have scheduled. It’s both an art and a science.

I’m also constantly in contact with our Logistics Cluster teams in our Juba, Bor, and Rumbek hubs on the available cargo, loading plans, and daily tonnage dispatched. After registering any new requests and reconciling the available cargo after a day’s dispatches, it’s already time to start brainstorming the next day’s plans. 

You mentioned river transport as an alternative to air, can you tell us more about that? 

To move larger payloads of humanitarian cargo we use barges along the river Nile. It is a valid alternative to costly air deliveries; movements on the river may not be as rapid as in the air, but the spacious barges allow for heavier and bulkier loads and are very useful when transporting large loads of shelter items, for example.

Last year we facilitated three barge trips on the river from Bor to Malakal.

 

Humanitarian Logistics in South Sudan

 

So how much humanitarian cargo are we talking about? 

On any given day, the Logistics Cluster may coordinate up to seven rotations of the three aircrafts and a fully loaded barge on the river. In a month, adding the road convoys, we facilitate the movement of approximately 1600 metric tonnes of cargo. To give it scale, this could fill approximately 60 shipping containers. We estimate that 90% of all Non-Food Items aid cargo in South Sudan is transported through the Logistics Cluster. 

That is a lot of cargo and an impressive portion of the humanitarian aid into the country! What do you see as the biggest challenge? 

Transporting cargo by both air and road becomes increasingly more challenging throughout the rainy season. The fixed wing plane requires three to four dry days with no rain to land safely on airstrips in the field, all of which are dirt and become very muddy in the rain. And none of the aircraft used can fly in the rain. This means we need forward planning and flexibility and a good amount of creativity when not even plan B or C are feasible.

There are some days when air travel is just not possible, which can be frustrating, but I learned not to let these setbacks affect my work. 

How do you do that? 

I think about the national NGO in Upper Nile who, without the support of the Cluster, could not carry out its distribution of shelter and kitchen sets for an IDP population that has fled to its area, or the UN colleague here in Juba who thanked me last week because their seeds and tools made it quickly to a remote field location where the local community will now be able to plant crops before the end of the planting season.

I also think about the thousands of South Sudanese who will be receiving life-saving medications, clean water, and materials needed to rebuild their home, thanks to our flights, convoys, and river operations. Knowing the impact the Logistics Cluster has on the humanitarian assistance in South Sudan makes my job so incredibly rewarding. 

What would you recommend to a woman starting in this profession and longing for field experience?

I am actually not a logistician by training; I hold a master’s degree in International Development and a certificate in Humanitarian Assistance and I worked in fundraising and event planning for more than eight years in Washington, DC before deciding to become a humanitarian.

Rather different from emergency logistics, but really just on paper, because many of the skills required, such as planning, budgeting, and vendors management are the same.

I like to think I’ve always been a loggie at heart—I was just doing the job in ballrooms instead of warehouses!

Logistics is a field where you can learn by doing. I think that with a solid education background and plenty of motivation and hard work you can learn the job. To excel though, you need strong organisational and planning skills, creativity, and especially flexibility and a good sense of humour.

Because logistics has historically been seen as a male profession, there’s a stereotype that women can’t or shouldn’t do this work. I’m proud to be part of dispelling the myth that women don’t belong in logistics, and to be working alongside several passionate and talented women, both South Sudanese and international, who have inspired me and pushed me to grow in this career. I hope that one day I will be the one mentoring the next generation of female humanitarian logisticians.

 

Humanitarian Logistics in South Sudan