Warehouses in the Desert


A starving South Sudan's lifeline is locked in a humanitarian hub thousands of miles away.

A starving South Sudan's lifeline is locked in a humanitarian hub thousands of miles away.

In regions where the blood-soaked earth has yet to produce a single crop in years, people count on food to literally fall from the sky.

Airdrops rain down a crucial lifeline for the dozen or so communities made into humanitarian hubs throughout South Sudan, feeding a country that teeters on the brink of famine.

A gruesome civil war has eaten up its countryside and subjected its citizens to alleged war crimes and mass rape. But for many South Sudanese, the airplane-shaped shadows in the clouds overhead bring more than just the promise of the next meal. They offer a rare glimpse of basic humanity.

If their own government isn’t willing to swoop in and help, at least someone else will.

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A United Nations World Food Programme helicopter delivers supplies to distressed communities in Ganyiel, South Sudan.

At just five years old, South Sudan is the youngest nation in the world, struggling to stand on its own. More than half of its entire population is starving. Another 2.3 million have fled their homes, forced to evade rebels by taking refuge in the dense and hopelessly remote swampland.

While its two-year civil war may technically be over, the more than 700,000 South Sudanese refugees who fled to neighboring countries still await word that it’s safe to return home. Political instability has trapped citizens in the middle of an ongoing power struggle. Targeted violence, particularly against women, persists in lieu of government protection.

Hope of a political solution in South Sudan rests on the horizon. But until then, citizens wait for the next shipments to arrive.

Crisis Relief

South Sudan is regularly aided by an air drop service that provides basic necessities to over 90,000 people.

Sudan

Melut

Malakal

Bentiu

Aweil

Ethiopia

Akobo

Wau

Nyal

Pibor

Rumbek

Central African Republic

Bor

Mingkaman

Juba

kenya

democratic republic of the congo

Juba, Capital of South Sudan

Aid delivery locations

Uganda

Source: Logistics Cluser Concept of Operations, 2016, WFP; Graphic by Nicholas Kiray

Crisis Relief

South Sudan is regularly aided by an air drop service that provides basic necessities to over 90,000 people.

Melut

Sudan

Malakal

Bentiu

Aweil

Ethiopia

Akobo

Wau

Nyal

Pibor

Rumbek

Central African Republic

Bor

Mingkaman

Juba

kenya

democratic republic of the congo

Juba, Capital of South Sudan

Uganda

Aid delivery locations

Source: Logistics Cluser Concept of Operations, 2016, WFP; Graphic by Nicholas Kiray

Crisis Relief

South Sudan is regularly aided by an air drop service that provides basic necessities to over 90,000 people.

Melut

Sudan

Malakal

Bentiu

Aweil

Ethiopia

Akobo

Wau

Nyal

Pibor

Rumbek

Central African

Republic

Bor

Mingkaman

Juba

kenya

democratic republic

of the congo

Uganda

Juba, Capital of South Sudan

Aid delivery locations

Source: Logistics Cluser Concept of Operations, 2016, WFP; Graphic by Nicholas Kiray

Crisis Relief

South Sudan is regularly aided by an air drop service that provides basic necessities to over 90,000 people.

Sudan

Melut

Malakal

Bentiu

Aweil

Akobo

Ethiopia

Nyal

Wau

Pibor

Rumbek

Central

African

Republic

Bor

Mingkaman

Juba

kenya

democratic republic

of the congo

Uganda

Juba, Capital of South Sudan

Aid delivery locations

Source: Logistics Cluser Concept of Operations, 2016,

WFP; Graphic by Nicholas Kiray

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Goods are stored in warehouses located inside the International Humanitarian City, a distribution hub in Dubai, United Arab Emirates for a consortium of international relief agencies.

Humanitarian groups are increasingly becoming the link between societies unbound by international borders. They are the firefighters who run into burning buildings and stick around to rebuild long after the embers die out.

The number of crises around the world grow by the day as one area of instability feeds into another. The amount of foreign aid donated by wealthy countries has steadily risen to record-highs over recent years, with no apparent ceiling in sight.

In addition, the global migration and refugee crisis has upended the way the West once thought of humanitarian aid. Extreme human suffering is no longer such a foreign problem.

It’s the beacon of humanity locked inside long stretches of the desert.
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The International Humanitarian City in Dubai, established in 2003 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is the largest logistics hub in the world dedicated to providing humanitarian aid.

They call it the International Humanitarian City, nestled inside the United Arab Emirates’ largest metropolis of Dubai.

Pallets of goods stack three stories high, lining the walls of warehouses that stretch for miles like identical row houses along a suburban curve. Aid workers await their time in the field. Grains, medical supplies, tents and tires are readied for regions of heavy conflict and isolation.

At nearly four times the size of the average Costco warehouse in the United States, the complex is the largest distribution hub in the world dedicated solely to supplying foreign aid. Hundreds of aid organizations worldwide have flocked to operate in the complex.

It’s the beacon of humanity locked inside long stretches of the desert.

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Mannequins are displayed at the offices of the World Food Programme and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Dubai.
Extreme human suffering is now no longer so much a "foreign" problem.

An earthquake in Nepal, floods in Malaysia, violent conflict in Yemen and cyclone season in the South Pacific — all within just the last year — highlight how dimly the warning signs light up before catastrophe strikes.

Aid groups under the umbrella of the United Nation’s humanitarian network have been dealt the near-impossible task of preparing for the unpredictable. But serving more than 100 countries across 5 continents is often a matter of remaining nimble. Six major distribution hubs of emergency supplies strategically located worldwide help that aim, promising relief within 48 hours of a distress call.

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A worker passes warehouses operated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at the International Humanitarian City in Dubai.
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Workers unload bags of rice at the Emirates Red Crescent warehouses located around the distribution hub for international relief agencies.

However great a lifeline the supplies present for a distressed community, no Band-Aid will stick long-term.

Critics against the expansions of foreign aid warn that widespread reliance on humanitarian relief would only undermine its intent. Each bag of food delivered to a community in distress risks weighing them down, leaving them struggling for survival in the moment rather than preparing for the future, and unable to plant the seeds to subsist on their own.

Complicating the risk factors are the variables in coordinating between the hundreds of good Samaritan groups worldwide. Efficiency is always a concern in ensuring that help reaches the right people at the right time. But when alms are passed through so many hands, how much will be left once it reaches its intended destination?

Workers unload bags of rice at the Emirates Red Crescent warehouses located around the distribution hub for international relief agencies.
The approaching wet season in South Sudan poses a logistical nightmare in ensuring that aid actually gets into the hands of those who need it most.
A tributary of the White Nile flows near Juba, South Sudan.

Humanitarian groups are desperate to navigate a more permanent source of food so that South Sudan’s nearly 12 million people will no longer continue facing severe difficulty in meeting their survival needs.

A consortium of eight international aid organizations have delivered more than 1,000 metric tons of cargo to the region since civil war broke out in 2013. But extreme challenges persist outside of the reach of humanitarian assistance to patch up the mix of man-made and natural disasters.

Atrocities linger in the aftermath of violent unrest that killed tens of thousands. A malaria outbreak in 2015 spiraled into a major public health concern, and the European Union’s Humanitarian Outreach wing expects that over the course of 2016, more than 231,000 children under the age of 5 in South Sudan will be considered severely undernourished.

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Empty sacks burn in a field near the World Food Programme distribution center in Ganyiel, South Sudan. The small community of Ganyiel has become a safe haven and important center of relief distribution for more than 90,000 people in the conflict-torn nation of South Sudan.

The United Nations World Food Programme hopes that within the year it could make a direct impact on the lives of at least 3 million South Sudanese. It has enacted new initiatives to bring back agriculture and sustainability.

But the approaching wet season in South Sudan poses a logistical nightmare in ensuring that aid actually gets into the hands of those who need it most.

Billions of aid dollars have funneled into propping up South Sudan’s fledgling infrastructure. Relief workers have scrambled in recent months to build out a 12-mile stretch of solid road to reach starving communities before the dry season ends.

And still, dirt roads line the vast majority of the regions surrounding the urban centers. It won’t be long before the soil sinks due to floods brought by the rain.

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South Sudan, still new as a nation since winning independence in 2011, has a young population. Roughly 45 percent of South Sudanese are under the age of 14.

Further clashes along ethnic lines and turf battles over South Sudan’s oil fields compound an already complex problem weighing down the new nation.

Several ceasefire agreements and broken accords later, the region is working to part from its violent roots and set a promising future for South Sudan, where nearly half of its population has just reached adolescence.

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The warehouses in the capital city of Juba form the main logistics and storage hub for the World Food Programme’s operations in South Sudan.
No Band-Aid will stick long-term.

Peace agreements in South Sudan, brokered with cautious optimism last August, show signs of eating away at the political and violent unrest that had divided the country. They revive the chance of prosperity for the youngest nation in the world — or at least offer a semblance of unity, something that citizens can look forward to.

But for now the people are still looking up, waiting for relief planes to come piercing through the sky.

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Humanitarian groups are desperate to find a more permanent source of food so that more than 6 million South Sudanese will no longer rely so heavily on foreign aid.

MATT BLACK is from California’s Central Valley, an agricultural region in the heart of the state. His work has explored the connections between migration, poverty, farming, and the environment in his native rural California and southern Mexico for two decades. "The work of a photographer is to reveal hidden things. I am fascinated by history and the way things change. Good photography looks backward and forward at once."

In 2014, he began the project The Geography of Poverty, a digital documentary that combines geotagged photographs with census data to map and document poor communities. In the summer of 2015, he undertook a thirty-state trip photographing seventy of America’s poorest places with MSNBC. Other projects include The Dry Land, about the impact of drought on California’s agricultural communities, and The Monster in the Mountains, about the disappearance of forty-three students in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. Both of these projects, accompanied by short films, were published in The New Yorker.

Time Magazine named him Instagram Photographer of the Year for his Geography of Poverty project. His work has also been honored by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation, the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Pictures of the Year International, World Press Photo, the Alexia Foundation, the Center for Cultural Innovation, and others. He lives in Exeter, a small town in California’s Central Valley.

Matt became a Magnum Nominee in 2015.