Karel Vervoort: Air drops work. Burma needs them now

A proven method of releasing small, life-saving parcels can bring instant relief to the junta's neglected people, if the will is there

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It is 15 days since Cyclone Nargis hit Burma's Irrawaddy delta. Officially, 78,000 people have died (with another 55,000 missing), but NGOs estimate the figures will go a good deal higher yet. The UN admits it hasn't a clue how bad things are. Offers of help for the 2.5 million people affected have come from all over the world, and aid organisations have done their valiant best to bring assistance. The situation is dire. There is nothing more certain than that corpses lying around in stagnant water will give rise to disease, yet that is precisely what the few images we have been allowed to see have shown us.

Yesterday, one account, from 60 miles south of the capital, reported the dispossessed lining the road: "Without clothes or shoes, the thousands of men, women and children could only stand in the mud and rain of the latest tropical downpour, their hands clasped together in supplication at the occasional passing aid vehicle. Any car that did stop was mobbed by children, their grimy hands reaching through a window in search of bits of bread or a T-shirt." A Burmese volunteer commented: "The situation has worsened in just two days. There weren't this many desperate people when we were last here." Yet the backward-looking junta in Rangoon will accept aid only on its own terms, refusing to allow foreign humanitarian workers into the country and insisting – despite having little experience – on distributing aid itself. This is not mere protection of national sovereignty but, when thousands are dying as a direct result, a paranoia-inspired crime against humanity.

So what are we in the comfortable West to do? Either we can ignore the problem, an option made easier for our politicians by a comparative lack of public pressure (thanks to the media being largely shut out of Burma). Or our governments can press on, cynically or otherwise, seeking to persuade the Burmese government that we mean them no harm and only want to help, a state of affairs that has produced monotonously unchanging news bulletins for 10 days. Or we can be a great deal more proactive, and do something that might help the image of international interventionism, so damaged by the Iraq adventure. A more muscular approach might involve, say, air drops of food and other supplies.

Should we do it, and would it work? To the "should we?" question, the answer is almost certainly yes. Admittedly, without prior approval from the Burmese government, we would be invading its airspace, something not to be undertaken lightly. Would the (insufficient) aid that is getting through on the ground be cut off in retaliation? Would foreign planes be shot at by the military? Would the Chinese get drawn in, with the possibility of a quite unpredictable escalation? I will return to these concerns below. But the "should we?" question is answered by reference to the New York declaration in September 2005, marking the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. There it says that the international community, through the UN, "has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity". This "responsibility to protect", surely, makes the case unambiguously. The UN, as we know, is notoriously bad at reaching agreement, but the principle stands.

So to the question "would it work?" There are problems, admittedly, but none of them insurmountable. Dropping large quantities of anything at random can be ineffective, as well as dangerous to those on the ground. Aid can fall into the wrong hands – either black marketeers or those with military muscle.

But there is a way of distributing aid from the air in small packages and across a wide area that overcomes these problems. It allows individual parcels, weighing up to 5kg, to be scattered widely, minimising the chances of them being monopolised and misused. The idea is to provide survival packs, containing enough food, water, anti-malaria pills and water purification tablets to keep one person alive for one day.

Fifteen years ago, I gave a presentation in London on what I and my personal staff were doing within Nato to develop ways of using military assets in international disaster relief. I showed videos on the low-altitude bulk food gravity drop system that we were then using in Africa in the Belgian air force. At that meeting, a man called Geoff Woodford told me he had been thinking about another system of air-dropping food without parachutes, which he called Snowdrop. He told me that he had done initial tests in South Africa using C130 planes. Having seen a video of these tests, I immediately saw that his system would complement the one we had been using in the Belgian air force. He and I came to an agreement whereby we would develop the system together, without our paying him for the patent. There were a good few teething problems, but we carried on, anxious to find a way of dropping aid on top of people, on top of houses, without causing damage, even in complex emergencies. After 10 years of tests and investment, we had perfected a way of doing it. By 2003 it was declared "operational" in the Belgian air force by the Minister of Defence, and we had developed a system that could be used with any aircraft with a back door. It can drop from any altitude. We did it up to 12,000 feet, but it can be done up to 24,000 or even higher, provided there is oxygen for the crew. It can be done by stealth, at night.

The question is, why has Snowdrop (in which, I should say, I have no financial interest) not been used in Burma? In theory, if the food arsenals were in place, aid could have been dropped within 24 hours of the cyclone. One stumbling block is the lack of political will. We have been reluctant to offend the Burmese government, preferring the softly, softly approach of trying to persuade it to change its stripes. This morning, though, Gordon Brown said an air drop could not be ruled out, although the British would have precious few C130s available and have no experience with Snowdrop as perfected by the Belgians. Ludicrously and scandalously, there has been a dispute over the ownership of the patent. The United Nations World Food Programme began implementing its own Snowdrop programme, declaring on their website that they had devised the system themselves.

But herein lies the problem. Geoff Woodford subsequently filed a complaint insisting that the patent was his, and asserting ownership of the intellectual property. I know whose side I am on. Since then there has been an impasse. A highly effective system exists that should now be in use in Burma. Many actual "experts" do not even know of its existence. When John Holmes, the UN's humanitarian affairs officer, meets Burmese officials this week, the idea of such a drop should be on the table. Nobody doubts that aid is best provided with the collaboration of the host government, but a form of it can be given even without that co-operation. There is even a half-way house. A deal could be done with Rangoon to allow officials to fly on board the planes, as happened when we did a drop in Ethiopia. A member of the military checked everything that went on board, everything that was dropped, and knew exactly where we were flying. That would allay fears of military or covert action, and satisfy the Chinese. With imagination, these things can be done. We don't have to sit on our hands.

Major General Karel Vervoort is a former head of Training and Support Command in the Belgian Air Force

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