From Port To Plane: How WFP Delivers Aid To Syria

Emergency Response Logistics Syria Turkey
WFP/Hani Al Homsh

Take a guided tour of the enormous logistical effort behind WFP's emergency operation inside Syria. Starting from a warehouse belonging to one of Turkey’s major food producers to the trucks and ships crossing borders to bring food to Syria, see WFP’s efforts feeding families affected by the conflict.

A plume of white dust fills the air after a 33-pound sack of flour lands with a thud onto the pavement. The sack is part of a food ration that will feed a whole family of five for one month in Syria. WFP Logistics Officer and Mersin Officer-in-Charge, Sumalee Sterup-Hansen, reaches down to inspect the stitching on the bag after the drop test.

“The stitching must be able to withstand multiple handlings not just from the factories in Mersin, but also from the transhipment point at the border,” she explains. “Any damage at the transhipment point is lost investment for the supplier, as well as the transporters.”

We are standing outside in the heat next to a football field-sized warehouse. Inside, workers are methodically packing hundreds of boxes with food rations for WFP to send onward to Syria. Next to us stands two imposing silos that process bulgur wheat and dried chickpeas, also part of the food rations.

Drop Tests And Lab Samples

It is the job of Gokhan Ustun, the Superintendent Manager for WFP Logistics in Mersin, to ensure the quality and safety of the food procured by WFP. This means drop tests and lab samples, as well as inspection of all packaging labels for each of the food shipments that will be sent from Mersin. In just 10 minutes at the factory site, it is clear Ustun doesn’t miss a detail.

“There are no expiration dates on these seven cans of chickpeas,” declared Ustun, “all must be sent back.”

The factory manager gestures in agreement and the cans are placed to one side. A massive 90 percent of WFP food sent to Syria is sourced from Mersin, which translates into big gains for the local economy. Since January 2011, WFP has procured a total $612 million in food commodities from Turkey. Mersin’s location on the northeast coast of the Mediterranean Sea provides access to Lattakia and Tartous – both major ports in Syria located near Homs and Hama, as well as port access further south to Beirut.

Sharing a 560-mile border with Syria, Turkey is well-placed to provide overland access through three major border crossings of Reyhanliand and Oncupinar (where transhipment of food from Turkish trucks to Syrian trucks occurs inside Turkey) and Nusaybin (where transhipment takes place inside Syria).

Shipping 3,000 Tons Of Wheat Flour

At Mersin port, 3,000 tons of fortified wheat flour are being transferred in one metric ton “big bags,” a packaging innovation that has reduced loading time at the port from cranes into the cavernous hold of the Serenada. The vessel will set sail to Tartous then for Beirut, where food will then be distributed to Syrians in urgent need of assistance. Peering over the hold of the ship, white bags upon white bags are stacked as far as the eye can see.

“Mersin provides a convenient location with both the port and suppliers located in the same place,” says Port Captain and WFP Logistics Officer, Niels Olsen. He adds “It will take 16 hours for the Serenada to reach Tartous; after unloading 1,400 tons, it will then proceed to Beirut.”

WFP Superintendent Gokhan Ustun joins us again at this site to do physical sampling of the wheat flour, which is carefully re-inspected (following initial inspection at the factory site). Any damaged flour is rejected and returned to the supplier, with new bags provided to WFP.

Before items are loaded onto the vessel, the ship is carefully inspected to ensure cleanliness and seaworthiness. Olsen explains that since the beginning of the operation in 2011, the logistics process has improved along the way.

“With time, the transaction costs are going down. We are reducing time lost – that is definitely money saved.”

Overland Through Bab al Hawa

In the WFP’s Logistics Hub in Reyhanli, Turkey, where the transhipment process takes place, empty Syrian trucks line up back to back next to Turkish trucks filled with rice, wheat flour and ration boxes. Before the trucks even reach the hub, they must be weighed, and then re-weighed once again before leaving for Syria. Once inside the hub, a flurry of activity takes place with all hands on deck.

WFP Logistics, alongside the United Nations (UN) Monitoring Team, Turkish customs officers, UN-contracted implementing partners, as well as Syrian laborers ensure the process of shifting food commodities from the Turkish to the Syrian trucks follows strict guidelines. Today, users of the hub include not only WFP-directed assistance but also, trucks being sent to Syria from six UN humanitarian agencies.

Charles Kumar, a WFP Logistics Officer who manages the Reyhanli hub, explains the process.

“Several elements make this process successful and inclusive. The customs process to allow the seal on the Turkish truck to be broken by the Turkish authorities and the weight bridge in Cilvegozu, where the trucks are weighed and contents x-rayed to ensure no harmful items are inside.”

The condition of the WFP-contracted Syrian trucks is also inspected to make sure they are suitably clean to carry food. The entire transhipment process can take up to six hours. When I ask about the work conditions of the Syrians loading the goods, Charles explains that safety is a big factor.

“The laborers come from different backgrounds. For many of them we had to explain how to move the items safely – we didn’t realize until speaking with them that some are actually bankers or even doctors and have never done this kind of work.”

Local Syrians working for WFP pose together after a long day of loading grains and food rations onto trucks for delivery aross Syria. (WFP/Sumalee Sterup-Hansen)

Kasim is one such worker. Shaking flour from his hands, he shares his story, explaining that he used to own a grocery business in Idlib which was destroyed in the fighting. He now lives in Reyhanli with his wife and seven children and works most days in the hub as a daily wage labourer.

Since receiving approval of Security Council Resolution 2165/2191 in July 2014, the volume of goods from WFP and the larger UN community to Syria has increased exponentially, especially through the Bab al Hawa crossing. Each day 10 to 30 trucks pass through the hub in Reyhanli, each one filled to the brim with approximately 20 tons of humanitarian assistance. WFP alone has sent almost 1,355 trucks to date.

Today’s transhipment process took four hours in total. The Syrian workers have transferred all the goods between the trucks, waybills are completed for each truck and UN Monitors have completed their work and given the green light for the convoy to leave. Bab al Hawa crossing is a little more than 4 miles from the logistics hub. WFP Logistics Officers wave the trucks through the exit of the hub and we follow them to the border, joined by a Turkish police escort to ensure they do not stay the night.

“The entire logistics process is like a relay race – we pass the baton from one person to the next making sure requirements are carefully checked and that the delivery plan is carefully coordinated within WFP, the wider UN and Logistics Cluster, the Turkish authorities, suppliers, transporters and WFP’s cooperating partners,” says Sumalee Sterup-Hansen.

She adds that procurement is coordinated mainly through WFP headquarters in Rome with regional coordination further afield in Cairo, Amman and Bangkok. A single logistics delivery plan is arranged two to three weeks in advance and real-time commodity tracking is recorded each step of the way in WFP’s Commodity Tracking System. Despite a streamlined process, challenges remain.

As the Syria crisis intensifies, so do the food requirements. What remains clear from seeing the operation up close is not only how impressive it is, but also how important. From port to the plate, millions of Syrians are counting on WFP each and every day.

WFP Executive Director talks with Syrian women at the agency’s distribution center in Damascus. (WFP/Abeer Etefa)

Salma is one such Syrian. Displaced inside Syria, her days are consumed with longing for her family and the home she left behind in Idlib.

“I don’t even know if they are still alive or if they managed to leave the country,” she says from the room she now calls home in a shelter in rural Damascus. “I stare at these walls every day wondering what our fate will be and how we will survive these dark days.”

Salma is one of 4.25 million Syrians who rely on WFP food assistance to feed their families each month inside Syria. Her school-aged children, seven and nine, have never seen the inside of a classroom, but she still has hopes that their turn will come in time. The enormous logistical effort behind the food ration Salma receives makes one of the only lasting comforts in her life possible – the ability to put food on the table for her boys.

Victoria is an External Partnerships Officer in WFP Turkey. She has also worked with the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations and UNOPS.  This story originally appeared on WFP.org and has been republished with permission.