ECHO: a lifeline in Africa's skies

ECHO: a lifeline in Africa's skies
By Euronews
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Another urgent call-out for Captain Ronald Hodge. Another day where he can make a difference.

His work for ECHO, the European Union’s humanitarian aid branch has taken him to airstrips right across the heart of Africa.

He’s there to help victims of natural disasters and conflict zones, often putting his own life at risk in the process.

He recalls one of this last missions, an emergency evacuation in the Democratic Republic of Congo:

“On arrival there we met this gentleman who was bleeding profusely. They could not get the bleeding stopped and he needed medical attention very, very urgently. So we were able to go in there, airlift him and take him all the way to Uganda, Entebbe, were he was able to receive medical treatment and ultimately survived. It made a difference between life and death for him.’”

Today, he has to make sure that aid worker Jeremiah Kariuki gets to his destination in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

For 16 years, ECHO’s air service has offered reliable and much needed support in Africa.

Rough terrain, inadequate roads and unreliable local airlines mean its often difficult for aid workers to get to where the aid is needed.

ECHO flights are there to solve these logistical problems.

Jeremiah is one of 1,500 passengers that the air service transports around the Great Lakes region each month.

As a programme manager for the NGO Oxfam, Jeremiah is used to finding himself in some of the world’s most remote locations.

Journeys of just a few hundred kilometres can take weeks on roads that are often completely impassable due to wet weather, and sometimes subject to the threat of armed attack by local militiamen.

Without ECHO reaches those who would otherwise be cut off and left to their fate.

Part of Jeremiah’s work for Oxfam is providing clean water and improved sanitation. He also works with community groups to promote and teach good hygiene practice. It takes him to areas sheltering refugees in their hundreds of thousands.

Building supplies for essential infrastructure such as latrines and community wells go through ECHO.

Everyday items such as workmens’ tools can be in short supply in north-east Congo.

Jeremiah says that makes ECHO’s work invaluable:

‘“ECHO flight has supported us in moving 10 and 15 tons of material. Like from Entebbe we had to move 5.6 tons of equipment, water pumps, cranes and pumps. And from Bunia we have had to move cement and iron bars to fabricate the wells. And this we couldn’t do through the road because the roads are in a very bad state.”

ECHO flights are based in Nairobi, Kenya. It’s here that aid workers make bookings to fly to wherever natural disasters and conflicts dictate. The flights help support around 100 EU humanitarian partners in their efforts to make a positive impact in the region.

ECHO flights mainly cover the Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Kenya. But the need for flexibility is of paramount importance; it’s hard to predict where and when help will be needed. Wars, droughts and diseases know no borders.

Over the last 15 years ECHO flights have also been deployed to crises in Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan.

Safety is an absolute priority and aircraft are scrupulously maintained and regularly overhauled.

Guy Van Eeckhoudt is part of the technical assistance team that sees to that. He explained his task:

“We work in crisis intervention. For example in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the moment, in the Uele area where refugees are moving from one place to another, we follow them and ECHO flight is supporting it’s partners in assisting the refugees.”

While transporting humanitarian workers is ECHO flight’s core activity, it also helps its NGO partners to move medical cargo to the most remote areas.

The regular freight transport service allows aid groups to reduce what they stock on the ground. It also reduces the risk of being hijacked on long journeys overland.

The NGO Medair aims to provide primary health care in areas such as Haut-Uele Province, where there are large numbers of internally displaced people.

It means medicine can get to where it is really needed, such as to this rural clinic a short distance outside Dungu. Richard Bananda is a Medical Supervisor working for Medair in Dungu and says ECHO is a vital part of the aid chain:

“With ECHO flight, over a period of two months, we deliver about three tons of medicine. With these regular deliveries we avoid losing medicine through theft and deterioration. And we believe the beneficiaries receive better medical care.”

ECHO’s highly experienced pilots are regularly required to fly in difficult weather conditions that can change in minutes from calm and clear to rough and dangerous.

The pilots also need to be able to land on short bush air strips of only a few hundred metres in length.

ECHO flights help guarantee access to many places that would otherwise be cut off from the outside world. For vulnerable communities in a volatile region, it is quite simply a lifeline.

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