Issue 17 - Article 12

The UN Joint Logistics Operation in Mozambique

June 5, 2003
Wilfried DeBrouwer
8 min read

The millennium did not bring much good fortune to Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in the world. During February, two consecutive cyclones caused the most severe floods for 50 years. On 4–8 February, heavy rains transformed the areas of the Limbombo, Incomati and Limpopo rivers in the south into an enormous lake. The Maputo/Matola area, home to more than 1.5m people, was severely affected, and the homes of 250,000 Mozambicans were destroyed. The second cyclone, on 27 and 28 February, severely affected the Limpopo and Save river basins further to the north.

The international reaction

South Africa was the first nation to respond, deploying helicopters and light aircraft into the area. The priority was to save those people who were overwhelmed by the floods. Rescue operations started on 11 February and, within a week, more than 2,800 people had been rescued. UN agencies and NGOs present in the area also responded, and appealed for special funding. Humanitarian support gradually arrived and, by 26 February, the situation appeared to be under control. The number of victims had been limited and sufficient food and non-food commodities were in place to support those in need. However, following the second cyclone the South African air force resumed rescue operations and picked up thousands of people, literally out of the trees. In addition, French, Malawian and commercial helicopters arrived, and undertook joint rescue operations until 6 March.

The combined rescue effort saved 16,551 people, 14,391 of them by the South African air force. Meanwhile, in parallel with the rescue activities, relief operations gained momentum. The shocking pictures portrayed in the world’s media fuelled an overwhelming humanitarian response. Hundreds of tons of relief commodities arrived. The floods had severely damaged roads, and thousands of people were isolated. It became clear that aircraft would also be needed to ensure the proper distribution of food and shelter materials.

Once relief commodities became available, the national authorities and the UN’s Resident Humanitarian Coordinator, Emmanuel Dierckx de Casterlé, faced the problem of their timely distribution. In the early days of March, in addition to South Africa, Malawi and France, the UK, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Portugal and the US sent numerous aircraft to the region. Other countries, such as the Netherlands, contributed boats to support food distribution in the flooded areas. National humanitarian organisations such as the US Office for Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and the UK’s Department for International Development (DIFID) provided funding to charter commercial aircraft. By 10 March, 58 aircraft and more than 200 boats were available to support the overall humanitarian effort.


To organise these relief operations, the Mozambican authorities and the UN set up a Joint Logistics Operations Centre (JLOC) in Maputo. The World Food Programme (WFP), the most experienced UN agency in logistics and deeply involved in the emergency, was appointed the lead coordinating agency. Besides WFP, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and some of the nations whose aircraft were operating in the area provided staff support.

At the start of the emergency operation, it was not possible to manage all boats individually, and the JLOC invited the donor nations to offer them directly to the national disaster-relief authorities and to those humanitarian organisations operating in the flooded areas. The JLOC’s most important task was to manage aircraft, and to coordinate and produce a detailed daily schedule of all humanitarian flights. It established a common procedure for all humanitarian organisations, whereby they could request air transport to support their relief activities. Requests were then prioritised and coordinated with the air operators. Every day, the following day’s schedule was decided at 4pm during a meeting with the military authorities. On the day of implementation, a general coordination briefing was given to all participating crews and, by 8am, virtually all aircraft were airborne. Operations took place from dawn to dusk, seven days a week. At the operation’s peak, more than 250 hours were being flown each day. By mid-March, hundreds of tons of relief goods, which did not necessarily match with the most urgent requirements, had arrived in the country. The JLOC was not only faced with allocating commodities and transport, but also, in close coordination with the national authorities, with registering and storing goods which were not urgently needed in the field.

Knowing that air operations are very costly, every effort was made to rationalise the use of aircraft, and the concept of Pick-Up Points (PUPs) was introduced. The aim was to transport relief goods as far as possible overland to centralised points, from where helicopters collected them and flew them across the flooded areas, directly to people in need. Such operations had to be carefully planned because several helicopters operated at these PUPs; on some days, more than 180 tons of food and non-food items were airlifted from one location to another. Since each helicopter is limited to between 2.5 and three tons, more than 70 flights were sometimes needed from each field location, requiring intensive supervision and coordination. On some occasions, more than 400 flights were registered throughout the country. An additional problem was that the helicopters needed to refuel. Fuel was transported by trucks and stored in bladder tanks at the PUPs. At airfields that could not be reached by fuel trucks, transport aircraft ‘de-fuelled’ from their own tanks into bladder tanks.

This gigantic humanitarian air operation lasted for several weeks, and was only interrupted by a few days of bad weather. By the end of March, most nations decided to withdraw their military assets, and the WFP had to charter additional civilian helicopters. At that stage, all available commercial helicopters in southern Africa were involved in the emergency, and additional helicopters were to be flown in from distant locations. During April, the operation gradually decreased, but helicopters remained in Beira until the end of the month, and the operations north of Maputo continued until 15 May.

The humanitarian air operation in Mozambique was probably the largest the world has ever seen. At its peak, 58 aircraft, 18 at Beira and 40 at Maputo, were available. Aircraft were of 24 different types, belonging to 15 different nations or operators. They flew a total of 9,318 hours, and transported 30,339 passengers and 11,633 tons of food and non-food items. The military operators carried out approximately two-thirds of the flights and, thanks to their quick reaction, accounted for 98.7 per cent of the rescue operation.

The major concern of all involved was to avoid accidents, and in this respect the operation was a great success. Helicopters and aircraft performed more than 20,000 take-offs and landings, including more than 16,000 winch operations, sometimes in very difficult circumstances, without incident – an unambiguous demonstration of the professional skills of all those involved.

Lessons learned

Without this air operation, many thousands of people would have died, not only as a result of the overwhelming force of the floods, but also from the shortage of food and drinkable water. Because several nations offered aircraft to the UN free of charge, it is difficult to estimate the global cost of the operation. Nevertheless, these nations had to bear the costs internally, and deploying military detachments is very expensive. The cumulative costs of these air operations are estimated at more $30m. This is a significant amount of money indeed, but given that soccer clubs are prepared to offer more than $20m for a player, the international community should be prepared to invest such an amount in an effort to save lives.

Since air operations are expensive, the UN should make every effort to manage these assets professionally. However, the JLOC’s activation process was difficult. The centre was installed in rooms without any furniture or telephone lines, and it took some time before staff had proper maps, office equipment and communications. Initially, it was difficult to impose the UN’s centralised-management concept upon the military actors, although coordination between the JLOC and the military structures was eventually flawless.

The JLOC concept proved that it is possible to combine all relief efforts. All organisations involved in the relief operation had access to a common pool of air transport, and every effort was made to coordinate their activities. Learning from this experience, and with the encouragement of donor nations, UN agencies are finalising the JLOC concept, and setting up a system so as to rapidly deploy the necessary office equipment and communications in case of large-scale emergency. An important point is the availability of qualified experts to man a JLOC. Training sessions are planned for a pool of experts from all UN agencies. This should make possible a quick-reaction capability, which can deploy immediately at the onset of an emergency, and which can efficiently coordinate the overall humanitarian relief effort.

Wilfried DeBrouweris Head, JLOC, Maputo, and Senior Logistics Advisor, World Food Programme, Rome.





















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