5.2 Forms of transport

There are four principal modes of transportation for delivering supplies: road, air, maritime (coastal, inter-island, river) and rail. The tonnage that can be transported, speed at which that happens, and cost per ton for transportation are interrelated and should be kept in mind when making decisions on which mode(s) to select.

Type of transport Characteristics Advantages Disadvantages
Air (airplanes)
  • Urgent need
  • In case of emergency
  • No other way to reach the area
  • High value low weight freight
  • Starting up large-scale operation
  • When there are no other means
  • Quick and reliable
  • Can reach far-away areas
  • Makes it possible to come closer to the area of operations
  • High cost
  • Depending on size of plane, cargo capacity may be small
  • Subject to weather conditions
  • Requires special fuel and safe conditions to operate
Air helicopters
  • Much more versatile than planes
  • Can land in difficult areas
  • Has limited cargo space
Land (motor vehicle)
  • Use depends on the physical and safety conditions of the access routes to the delivery points
  • Within a region or country
  • Highly flexible
  • Inexpensive and readily available
  • Given its availability, cargo space increases
  • Routes might be in bad shape, impassable or simply not exist
  • May be dangerous (floods, armed conflict, bandits, etc.)
Land (rail)
  • Use depends on existence, route and conditions
  • Not used much
  • Large load capacity
  • Operating costs are generally low
  • Limited network
  • Need to use other transport to take the supplies to the warehouse or operations sites
Maritime (sea)
  • Large lower value freight, less urgent
  • More and more used during the second phase of a crisis, whenever possible
  • Used mostly for transporting supplies from abroad
  • Need access to a harbour or pier
  • Large load capacity
  • Economical
  • Slow
  • Need to use other transport to take the supplies to the warehouse or operations sites
  • Useful for supplying riverside and nearby communities with moderate amounts of aid, for moving people or supplies in the event of a flood
  • Low cost
  • Access to areas hard to reach by other forms of transport
  • Limited load capacity, depends on size of the vessel
  • Use depends on the characteristics of the river and waterways
Human and animal
  • Small loads, generally in remote areas where vehicles can’t reach
  • Low operational cost
  • Access to difficult areas
  • Limited load capacity
  • Slow