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Disaster ResponseNatural Environment

MAF delivers food aid to Suriname in response to ‘unprecedented floods’

23rd April 2022

Rainy season in South America’s Suriname is nothing new, but this year’s water levels have reached a new high causing more devastation than ever before. In response, MAF is partnering with the national disaster response agency ‘NCCR’ delivering food to far-flung people affected by the floods. MAF’s Helmer Maas updates Claire Gilderson on the relief effort so far…

Suriname’s rainy season between April and August has always been a challenge. Flooded streets with broken-down cars and motorbikes are nothing new but this year, unusually heavy rainfall since January has caused riverbanks to burst, flooding dozens of villages across the country.

According to AFP News, more than 3,000 households have been affected by ‘unprecedented floods’, which have also devastated crops, livelihoods and schools. Helmer Maas, MAF Suriname’s Office Manager based in the capital Paramaribo, says the floods will affect the country’s long-term food security:

‘In Suriname’s interior, crops are grown next to the rivers where people live. Rivers are their lifeline but burst riverbanks have completely destroyed the cassava harvest this year, so their main supply of food has gone.

‘The next season of cassava will be planted in August, which means that they’ll have to wait until early next year for their next harvest. They can’t wait that long! Food supply is a big issue now.’

Many residents are no longer able to reach their village by foot, so are having to travel by small boats to reach their destination. Others cannot access health centres due to the floodwaters.

Suriname’s president Chan Santokhi has declared seven out of the country’s 10 districts ‘disaster areas’ with water levels rising to five metres in some areas. He’s calling for international help and MAF has responded.

Over 200 families fed so far

MAF has joined forces with Nationaal Coordinatie Centrum Rampen or NCCR – Suriname’s national disaster response agency – in a bid to distribute food aid to the most isolated people cut off by the floods. This is the first time MAF has worked with NCCR to alleviate suffering caused by flooding.

On 9 June, MAF flew around 30 sacks of food containing rice, potatoes, canned vegetables, cooking oil and onions to Amatopo in southern Suriname. A similar cargo reached Coeroenie on 21 June and Tepoe on 24 June.

The plane was met by local village leaders and a small team who then went on to distribute the food amongst their villagers.

To date, over 200 families have received food flown in by MAF. In the coming weeks, using two planes and three pilots, MAF will make similar trips to another five remote village airstrips in the south including Apetina, Kwamala, Paloemeu, Alalapadu and Sipaliwini.

Without MAF, it would take days to reach people

On average, it takes MAF between 1 hour 30 minutes and 2 hours 15 mintues to fly from Zorg en Hoop Airport in Paramaribo to the above remote villages in southern Suriname. These villages are not serviced by any roads so without MAF, the journey would take days to get there!

By air, Tepoe takes 1 hour 30 minutes from Paramaribo but without MAF, Helmer explains the arduous alternative:

‘Heading south from Paramaribo, they would have to drive around Lake Brokopondo – one of the largest reservoirs in the world. The road ends at the bottom of the lake, so they would have to travel by boat on the rivers or by foot to continue.

‘Depending on the water levels, it would take several days by boat and walking. It could take three days or so to reach Tepoe. There are no roads! The only transport is plane, boat or by foot – it would be very challenging!’ 

In Suriname’s hour of need, the NCCR is reliant on MAF’s safe and fast service:

We are very grateful for the cooperation and security MAF brings in the distribution of food aid. Without these flights, it would be a big problem delivering these essential packages. Without MAF, it could take up to three days to reach some of these villages.

Colonel Slijngard from The Nationaal Coordinatie Centrum Rampen

Without air travel, these communities would be cut off from essential supplies and disconnected from the rest of their country.

Floods make landing difficult

Perfect weather makes for perfect flying and landing conditions, but what if it rains non-stop?

Given Suriname’s wet season, rain is expected to continue falling until mid-August, which can prevent planes from landing on soddened soil. When planes are the only means of distributing food in a disaster, that is a challenge says Helmer:

‘Every morning we get weather reports. If there’s too much rain, the authorities close the airstrips because you can’t land when the soil is too soft from heavy rain, so we’re not able to get there at all! 

‘The next day, if there’s no rain and the soil has dried up, we’re able to land there again, but sometimes we need to wait. Unfortunately, we had to delay the food aid flight to Tepoe because the airstrip was simply too wet to land.’

Suriname’s unstable weather calls for careful planning by the pilots – as ever, safety comes first.

Helmer faces floods first-hand

Two weeks ago, Helmer personally experienced the floods first-hand in MAF’s pool car when he attempted to drive through Paramaribo in a bid to sort out his visa. His wife Maye captured this footage:

Helmer takes up the story:

‘We had a whole night of rain – it was so bad, many streets were flooded. People had to raise up their beds and fridges at home, which is crazy! It’s the worst it’s ever been. I needed to hand in some papers in the city. Getting there I didn’t have to go through any water – I arrived dry, but on the way back I went via another route because of the one way system.

‘Suddenly, I approached a lot of water so I changed direction. Initially, I thought the area wasn’t too bad – just two hundred meters of water, but it turned into a long street of water full of speed bumps – much worse than I thought! In Suriname, speed bumps are big but if they’re under water, you can’t see them! I just kept on going.

‘The water was about half a metre deep. Whenever a truck passed by, water would splash over the car! I was quite scared because water had got into the car the night before and colleagues had to take it to the garage.

‘The water came in faster than I expected and I had to drive quite fast to get out. The engine could have died and I would have been stuck. Fortunately I arrived back at base….wet, but at least the car didn’t break down until the next day!’

But for many people living in Suriname’s interior, Helmer says there’s no spare cash to repair damage or replace goods caused by the floods:

‘A broken down car is an inconvenience, but for the people living in remote areas, there’s a lot of poverty. When water floods their homes and things break down because they’ve gotten wet, they don’t have any resources to buy new things or access building materials to make their houses good again. They are stuck – for those people, the situation is really bad.’

With crops wiped out until early 2023, MAF’s immediate response is turning into long-term support for Suriname’s most vulnerable and isolated communities concludes Helmer:

‘These floods are a long-term problem for the people living in the interior because their crops are gone. For the cut-off communities dependent on outside help, airbridges and MAF flights are vital for food supplies when there is no cassava harvest.’

As Suriname recovers from these unprecedented floods, MAF continues to provide medevacs and other flights, which support community development and evangelism alongside immediate relief.

Please pray for the people of Suriname at this time.