Inside the logistics hub at Kathmandu's airport

Médecins sans Frontières’ new 54-bed hospital for Nepal weighs 35 tons and is currently in scores of boxes sitting in a giant tent – known as a mobile storage unit – in the humanitarian cargo area of Kathmandu airport.

Sometime tomorrow, the self-contained inflatable hospital with its equipment, drugs, and operating theatre, will be loaded onto trucks for the 154-km journey west to the district of Gorkha, and the next occupant of this storage unit could be sacks of rice. 

This is the Humanitarian Staging Area, managed by the World Food Programme (WFP), which provides free storage to aid agencies. It was built by UK Aid, with Nepal’s susceptibility to natural disasters in mind, and just opened in March. It is now proving its worth in the wake of the 25 April earthquake.

“It’s highly valuable,” said Olivier Brandner of MSF-France. “There would have been nowhere else for us to have stored our supplies when we arrived. It really saves us time.”

Before the 7.8-magnitude quake, the staging area was a collection of pre-fab offices and just one storage unit. When IRIN visited, it had five up and running, and a sixth on the way, its light aluminum skeleton hoisted by a gang of workmen. There is only space for a total of nine mobile storage units. WFP has 26 more in storage. The plan is for additional staging areas to be set up in other parts of the country, for example on the Indian border. 

“We were operational on Day 1,” said WFP logistics officer Edmondo Peronne. “Now [Nepal] is in full emergency phase; humanitarian assistance will start to flow.”

Deanne Beaumont, WFP hub manager, told IRIN a system – based on preparation, movement control, and segregation of tasks – has been bedded down over the last few days, “so we won’t be overwhelmed”.

Government-to-government assistance is being handled by the army, working with the Ministry of Home Affairs, and operating two of the mobile storage units.

Clearing the airport

The role of the staging area is not just to safely store supplies but to decongest the airport. The aim is to have humanitarian cargo move off the apron as quickly as possible and directly into WFP’s storage facility.

“The airport is overloaded. We don’t want to have flights coming in stopped. We can handle the congestion. It’s better to have it here,” Beaumont said.

The Disaster Response Team of the global courier DHL is also helping; activated by the UN on 27 April, an advance team arrived in the capital Kathmandu on Monday. 

“We’re helping smooth out the flow. WFP tells us a flight is coming in, what types of items and the quantity, and we prepare ourselves,” a DHL official, who asked not to be named, told IRIN. 

“People just dump at the apron and go. Our role starts from the airport side to here, applying the skills from the commercial world to relief operations, to smooth the entire flow,” he added.

The procedure for requesting storage space is online and simple, and even easier if you are an agency or NGO registered with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a discreet vetting.

Input the details of your cargo, tonnage, and whether transport is required (WFP can provide inland delivery) - and then submit the form. Once WFP confirms it can accept the consignment, it takes over.

There is no concern of supplies stacking up in the forwarding area, uncollected. “This is an emergency, people want to get it out as soon as possible,” Beaumont said.

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