Canoes penetrate Guinea Bissau's swamps bearing food

Rio Geba estuary, 8 June 2007 - For villagers nestled in Guinea Bissau's mangrove swamps, WFP's canoes bearing food are a welcome sight when stocks run low. Hilary Heuler looks at how WFP's logistics team adapts to any terrain so they can help the hungry.

In the West African country of Guinea Bissau, a land densely veined by rivers and streams, water deeply permeates life itself. In some areas, dry land is scarce and roads are virtually nonexistent.

For villagers living nestled in the swampy mangroves of the Rio Geba estuary, water has always been the only conceivable form of transport. And for those trying to reach them with badly-needed food rations, the river is the only way in.

WFP first used canoes for operations in the aftermath of the 1998-1999 civil war. And then, during last September's rainy season, when there was simply no other way to get the necessary rations to mangrove villages, the canoes were called upon once again.

Nightmare of mud

Guinea Bissau gets an average of one and a half metres of rain a year, making delivering food a nightmare of mud and washed-out roads. One WFP truck got stuck on a muddy road for so many days last year that the crew had to survive by eating the very food they were transporting.

Along with seasonal challenges, years of civil war have wreaked havoc on the nation's infrastructure, making the flow of goods and aid to the interior difficult at the best of times.

Conflict and unrest have disrupted the livelihoods of thousands of people across the country, and it is more vital than ever that WFP rations reach the people who need them most.


The canoes that make their way through the mangroves carry rice, oil and iodised salt used in food-for-work programmes, through which WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and NGOs help villages cultivate rice paddies in difficult growing conditions.

Two hundred metric tons were distributed by canoe last year to about 14,000 people - roughly 20 per cent of total deliveries in southern Guinea Bissau.

The food supports entire families as they build dykes to keep brackish water out of the paddies. In 2006, around 70 per cent of the rice paddies in the area were rehabilitated with dykes.

Plentiful harvest

The effort was paid off in an abundant annual harvest. The boats also bring food to nutrition centres, where WFP is working to combat malnutrition by treating pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and their malnourished children.

Along with the year-round supplementary feeding, the women were given full family rations during the 2006 lean season, the time when pre-harvest food scarcity hits the hardest.

Negotiating the currents and tricky tides around Bissau is not easy, particularly in wooden canoes laden with sacks of rice. But with careful seamanship, ingenuity and determination, WFP is still managing to fight hunger, even in the most unreachable corners of the world.