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A U.S. Air Force loadmaster releases humanitarian aid pallets of food and water over Gaza, on March 2.Tech. Sgt. Christopher Hubenthal/Reuters

Chris Houston is the former head of logistics for the World Health Organization in Yemen, teaches humanitarian logistics at the University of Toronto, and is president of the Canadian Peace Museum charity.

Of all the mechanisms to deliver food aid to people in humanitarian crises, dropping things out of airplanes is the last resort. That’s true anywhere, but especially in densely populated urban areas. You don’t need to be a logistics expert to understand the risks to people on the ground from airdrops. Although parachute failure rates are low, each failure can result in aid packages hurtling toward Earth at lethal speeds.

It is also a dangerous lesson to teach children that food falls from planes when military jets also drop deadly munitions, some of which become unexploded ordnance.

The UN’s World Food Programme raised the alarm about an impending famine in Gaza in late December, with 2.2 million people in a food security crisis and 576,600 facing catastrophic hunger and starvation. To feed the population of Gaza with 850-gram food packages (the standard weight of a humanitarian daily ration) would require 1,870 metric tons of food per day. The C-130 transport aircraft used in the only U.S. airdrop so far has a maximum capacity of 19 metric tons. It is not feasible to deliver the required amount of food aid by air.

On Saturday, the U.S. Armed Forces undertook their only food airdrop of the Israel-Hamas conflict – 66 bundles containing 38,000 meals were dropped from planes over Gaza. Assuming that all bundles safely landed on the ground, that they made their way to hungry people, and that the meals had sufficient calories for a full day, then just under 2 per cent of Gazans would have been fed by airdrops that day, after months of food insecurity. This is massively insufficient, even with a lot of optimistic assumptions built in.

What Gazans need is hundreds of tons of food aid delivered daily – the amount of food aid delivered by U.S. airdrops was about one truckload. It is a fraction of a fraction of the solution. Some may think that something is better than nothing, but I think airdrops are a distraction from a more meaningful solution. Trucks are the obvious way to do it. Delivery by boat is also a possibility, but there are established road routes. However, Israel’s border restrictions have reduced the vital supply of aid to a trickle.

While airdrops cannot solve Gaza’s food crisis, they could be used to get urgently needed medical equipment to a hospital, or a generator part to a water pump. However, roads are still the optimal way to deliver these things, with lower cost and much less risk of theft or damage.

Siege warfare is a feature of contemporary conflicts. In 2015, during the Yemen conflict, the Saudi-led coalition severely restricted the port of Al Hudaydah, creating a food crisis throughout northern Yemen. In 2018, the government of Syria used siege tactics to block food to the eastern Ghouta region. Canada condemned Syria’s blockade and echoed the UN Security Council’s call for a ceasefire.

A key principle of international humanitarian law is that warring parties must distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. Attacks must not cause incidental loss of civilian life or unnecessary suffering. Canada’s current demands for a ceasefire in Gaza are late, inconsistent, and difficult to reconcile with our military exports to Israel.

The actions of the U.S. are worse. Vetoing three ceasefire votes at the UN Security Council, they are the key country that could and should influence Israel, as the death toll in Gaza rises above 30,000 people.

In January, Canada paused additional funding to Gaza’s most important aid agency, UNRWA, the United Nations relief agency. The pause was a response to Israeli allegations that UNRWA staff participated in the horrendous events of Oct. 7. While accountability and a thorough investigation are paramount, funding pauses could not come at a worse time. Humanitarian needs are overwhelming. Canada should be increasing funding to UNRWA, not limiting it.

Israel should lift its near-total aid blockade. The U.S. and Canada should amplify the UN Security Council’s recent calls for Israel to enable and support the delivery of humanitarian aid and use all diplomatic influence to encourage that. Airdrops make dramatic headlines and give political cover for ignoring the root causes of hunger and aid shortages. Gazans are dying and the world is watching.

The choice between ineffective airdrops and the pressing need for open aid corridors in Gaza is clear. The international community must prioritize direct, safe, sufficient and dignified aid delivery to Gazans. We must align our actions with our humanitarian principles to truly serve those in desperate need.

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