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MYANMAR: Humanitarian air bridge up and running

BANGKOK, 2 June 2008 (IRIN) - The usually deserted runways and warehouses of Bangkok's Don Mueang airport have sprung alive as relief supplies for Myanmar rush in from around the globe.

Food, medicine, shelter equipment - as well as cargo helicopters - arrive daily at the airport, destined for Myanmar's cyclone-hit regions, where an estimated 2.4 million people remain homeless and hungry.

Some 134,000 people are either dead or missing after Nargis, a category four storm, slammed into Myanmar on 2 and 3 May.

"The airport is our air bridge into Burma," Paul Risley a spokesman for the World Food Programme (WFP), told IRIN in Bangkok. "We have had cargo flights from around the world going through the airport."

Flights now come in daily from around the world to ferry supplies through Don Mueang to Yangon, the former Myanmar capital, having been briefly suspended on 9 May.

Once Thailand's main airport and a major regional hub for Asia, Don Mueang was replaced by the ultra-modern Suvarnabhumi airport in September 2006.

At its peak, Don Mueang handled more than 160,000 flights per year, 38 million passengers and 700,000 metric tonnes (MT) of cargo, making it the world's 18th busiest airport in 2005.

But since Suvarnabhumi opened - aside for a few budget flights, as well as some cargo and military flights - Don Mueang has been largely empty.

Supply chain

"The facilities are ideal for us. Don Mueang used to be a major international airport so there is huge surplus space for us," said Risley.

Within the facility, incoming relief can be stored at the airport's 30,000 sqm warehouse and called in as needed to Yangon.

"This will ensure we don't have a congested airport in Yangon," Matthew Hollingworth, a WFP logistician and head of the logistics cluster, explained, citing the importance of Bangkok as the primary staging ground for getting assistance into the country.

The main logistics hub will be Yangon, but Bangkok will be the staging area to support it, Hollingworth said. It takes a C-17 helicopter transport flight less than two hours to reach Yangon.

In addition to a small army of local staff, there are 10 full-time international staff at the airport loading and unloading relief aid, as well as coordinating the effort. The aid includes food, water, water purification systems and basic supplies such as blankets.

With more aid arriving daily, operations at the airport look set to increase significantly.

Currently, one Ilyushin-76 and one Antonov-12 are serving the air bridge into Yangon, but the capacity can be increased quickly if required. Regular flights continue across the air bridge from Bangkok into Yangon and from other points direct into Myanmar and on 1 June, the Canadian government flew in four MI-8 helicopters to help in the relief operation.

Logistical problems

Despite some signs of progress, Myanmar's military-led government remains reluctant to allow foreign aid workers and foreign aid into disaster-stricken regions, and still refuses to permit foreign military helicopters to fly through its airspace.

Sources at the airport confirm that the restrictions have posed serious logistical problems.

The Australian air force was forced to hire a South African company to provide two Pumas, a medium-sized twin-engined transport/utility helicopter, because its equipment was not allowed to fly in Burmese airspace.

"We could have had this [aid] delivered days ago, but we are having to work with equipment we are not familiar with," Colonel John Baxland, the Australian Embassy's Defence Attaché, explained. "But we are of course very happy that this aid will get to the people who need it most … It is a life or death situation [in Myanmar]," he added.

According to WFP, the helicopters, once operational, will prove key to getting assistance into the Ayeyarwady Delta, where access remains particularly poor.

"The helicopters will play a key role in the relief operations," said Risley. "Many of the hardest-hit areas are almost inaccessible. It can take three to four days to reach them by boat – a helicopter can do it in a few hours," he explained.

As part of the overall logistics strategy, aircraft will fly relief supplies from Don Mueang to Yangon, where they will then be transported by helicopter, trucks or barges to the disaster areas, to be distributed by NGOs on the ground. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Myanmar Red Cross have been stationed throughout Myanmar's delta areas to receive aid shipments from WFP helicopters.

"We rely on the co-operation of NGOs on the ground to hand out the aid – without them, it would be nearly impossible to distribute," the WFP official added.

While access has improved, it is still not seen as sufficient. "What is needed is free and unfettered access and that's not happening," said Mark Farmaner of The Burma Campaign.

gm/ds/mw

Theme(s): (IRIN) Aid Policy, (IRIN) Natural Disasters

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Copyright © IRIN 2008
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.



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