In-depth: When disaster strikes: the response to the South Asian earthquake

PAKISTAN: The complexities of delivering aid

Injured await help in remote mountainous areas of Battagram , Pakistan close to the epicentre of the South Asian earthquake of 8th October 2005
NAIROBI, 5 June 2006 (IRIN) - Whenever there is an emergency where organisations and governments rush to respond there often follows a string of complaints about how the aid was delivered. This article will focus on the complexity of delivering aid in emergencies, with an emphasis on natural disasters rather than complex emergencies.

While those outside the aid world may be critical of the failure of the delivery of sufficient aid, the lateness of aid, the diversion of precious resources, the politicisation of aid, or the apparent high administrative costs, these criticisms serve to illustrate the extremely complex realities that face the aid community in its efforts to respond to emergencies.

Those within the sector face a wide range of limitations that potentially compromise or mitigate the success of their work. They themselves are critical of their own failings as a sector, but battle against a many-headed monster of challenges trying to deter them from success.

This article explores the character of these limitations, using examples from recent emergencies, to show why crisis response is fraught with difficulties. It will also show how the case of the recent South Asia Earthquake - striking Pakistan with force on 8 October 2005 - was a extraordinary example where many of the usual problems were overcome through unusually effective cooperation and commitment.

Is it on the box?

Whether a crisis is an act of nature, or caused or exacerbated by man, it is the media -especially television - that is most likely to be the first channel of information to the public. Broadcasting is the most powerful medium, with over a billion television sets, and twice as many radios being used globally. The famous news focus by BBC reporter Michael Burke and cameraman Mohamed Amin in 1984, led to the unprecedented interest in the Ethiopian famine which was then covered exhaustively as the progress of the famine drew out over subsequent months. It spawned other media and international celebrity events that made Ethiopia’s experience the most watched disaster ever.

Over a million Ethiopians starved to death despite massive, but late, intervention financed by an unparalleled outpouring of public and government funding.


Photo: Nadia Bilbassy
Stories do not go very far unless they get ‘on the box’. Here a cameraman films flood survivors in Mozambique in January 2001.The relationship between the media, crisis response and resource allocation is critical
The impact of Hurricane Mitch in Central America in 1998, the international impact of the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004, Hurricane Katrina and flooding in New Orleans and the South Asian Earthquake - all in 2005, were extensively covered by television and radio broadcasts. In many cases, first reports of the disasters were made public before aid agencies, national governments and international donors were fully appraised of the disaster.

Television is the key source of intelligence in the first hours or days of a crisis. This is less the case for complex emergencies or slow-onset disasters, but increasingly it is television images that force governments to act, and the public to give. In the case of Niger during 2005, the famine in parts of that country were well-monitored by aid agencies and food security experts long before it became a recognised crisis requiring international assistance. Not unusually for slow-onset disasters such as famines, “the situation in Niger didn’t hit the spotlight until eight months after the first appeals were launched, but footage of the dramatic Tsunami was on our screens practically as soon as it had hit,” claimed Marcus Prior of the World Food Programme. The same is currently happening in relation to the drought affecting an estimated13 million people in the Horn of Africa. Too little, too late, claim those working on the ground.

Where journalists, and particularly TV crews, are barred from reporting, or fail to report, such as during the Rwandan genocide, the Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia, the Sudanese government and Janjaweed attacks on Darfurian civilians, or the continuing carnage in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), public and governmental motivation and impetus will be weak.

The “responders’ cauldron”

According to the “World Disasters Report 2005”, produced annually by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, natural disasters claimed the lives of over 249,000 people in 2004 in 360 reported disasters globally. The figures for 2005 are still being prepared, but the overall annual trend shows a clear increase in the number of disasters and number of casualties per disaster. In terms of lives lost, developing countries pay a disproportionate and overwhelming price.


Photo: Kyrgyz emergency ministry
Landslides such as this one that struck southern Kyrgyzstan in May 2004 kill thousands every year and destroy homes and livelihoods in seconds. As overpopulation and climate change creates new stains on the environment, natural disasters are increasing in number annually
When disaster strikes, the machinery of aid springs into action, including: national governments and donors; a plethora of international and national NGOs; the Red Cross/Crescent movement; and the agencies of the United Nations. Local people also show enormous solidarity by offering immediate physical assistance, or by spontaneously distributing goods to victims as was seen after the Tsunami, the Bam earthquake in Iran in 2003, and in Pakistan after the earthquake.

Relative newcomers to the club of responders are military contingents and the corporate business sector. During the Tsunami response, military contingents from 34 countries were deployed, while increasing numbers of private corporate bodies also turned up offering support to the victims and displaying ‘corporate social responsibility’. All these actors make for a “responders’ cauldron” according to Ajun Katoch in a recent article in the “Journal of International Affairs”, (Spring/Summer 2006).

Katoch outlines how unique the international disaster response needs to be in comparison to other aid work, and decries the unregulated and uncoordinated nature of many of the responders who show reluctance to play ball with the various UN-led international mechanisms for response management.

Firing up the engines

In terms of speed, the local population and instruments of local government are best placed to respond immediately to any disaster. Normally, in developing countries, they neither have the expertise nor human or resource capacity to do so. In natural disasters such as earthquakes, cyclones, volcanic eruptions and heavy flooding, the UN has dedicated teams of early response, through their Disaster Assessment and Coordination teams (UNDAC), along with the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group, and the accompanying agreements with countries around the world that allow them to deploy search and rescue teams without restriction.


Photo: IRIN
In terms of speed, the local population and instruments of local government are best placed to respond immediately to any disaster. In the case of the Tsunami in Thailand in late 2004 thousands of volunteers rushed to help the affected. Here helpers remove the dead
At the same time, many of the major international NGOs, and the elements of the Red Cross movement, mobilise resources to fly into the disaster zone. Some may have limited standby facilities of essential equipment such as tents, bedding, kitchen kits and plastic containers ready to be flown out of their storage locations. While other agencies may focus on health and have emergency standby health units and drugs ready for immediate deployment with medical staff. In the case of the global network of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, their local staff are prepared in emergency response and can be activated at short notice.

The larger agencies - often those that can source non-earmarked public funding - have contingency finance available to immediately hire and deploy staff, and purchase equipment before or when disaster strikes. The smaller agencies start petitioning their governments for emergency grants as soon as they can. Both launch media campaigns and public appeals that can raise large amounts, particularly if fundraising is well organised and coincides with extensive media coverage of the event. The British public, for example, can only be persuaded to send agencies £30 for a Darfurian refugee to purchase a new donkey if they have seen harrowing sights of refugee livestock dying on their televisions.

Governments and large donors may pledge money or make grants in favour of an emergency, as many did in the case of Pakistan. Equally, with the Tsunami, donors made wave after wave of increasing financial pledges as new information about the extent of the devastation was released in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

Getting resources on the ground

Before getting food and non-food items to where they are most needed – into peoples hands - they need to be flown, shipped or trucked into the country concerned. Unlike complex emergencies - where aid agencies may be trying to cross lines of conflict or deal with uncooperative governments or commanders - those who respond to natural disaster are normally given relatively free reign to get their resources ‘into theatre’.


Photo: WHO
Fast-onset disasters are normally natural disasters and include cyclones, hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes, volcanoes, locust attacks and fires. In 2002 a volcano near Goma in DRC spewed larva through much of the town. Many were displaced and needed international aid
Emergency response is time-sensitive, not least because by the time the responders act, or by the time the TV crews are covering the story, the crisis has already happened or has matured. Purchasing food and shipping it to remote locations already takes weeks or months. Studies in the 1990s revealed that for the European Union and other major donors, the time from when they receive emergency requests for critical food needs to the time of actual delivery of food to the starving populations is around 11 months. In sudden onset disasters, the delivery of aid is even more time-critical. Late delivery of assistance directly contributes to higher mortality in emergencies.

Banditry, poor roads, the rains and an uncooperative Sudanese government forced the World Food Programme in the last two years to avoid trucking food aid to Darfur from the Red Sea. Instead, they drive the 12-day, 2,800 kilometre route through the Sahara desert from Libya. In recent months they have been forced to cut rations to the 2 million displaced in Darfur due to low donor support.

Issues of access are normally the most critical factor facing emergency relief in any emergency. In Aceh, Indonesia, the only road serving most of the Tsunami-affected communities was destroyed, as were many sections of the mountain passes in Pakistan. However, in Sri Lanka and Thailand, the damage caused by the Tsunami was restricted to the coastal half-kilometre of land, which meant that necessary supplies could be brought by road or train directly into the area affected quickly and cheaply. In less accessible communities and islands, boats were used to bring basic survival assistance.

Throughout Africa, poor or non-existent infrastructure is the major limiting factor for effective and cost-effective aid delivery, particularly where the impact of a drought is spread over vast remote areas such as South Sudan, Niger, Northern Kenya, or Mozambique. Long-term delivery of food aid by plane characterised the first decade of Operation Lifeline that sought to feed South Sudan in the 1990s, but the costs have been enormous.


Photo: FAO
Drought, though a slow-onset emergency normally affected a far wider and higher number of people. The drought of early 2006 affected over 13 million people in the east and horn of Africa
The logistical aspects of any relief programme can be formidable and frequently the most constraining factor. Backlogs in seaports or airports are common. Access to lifting equipment, storage and efficient warehouse management is also critical. Recognising this, the US military contingent in Pakistan placed a full airport-based aeroplane-unloading team in Islamabad to service the hundreds of freight flights that began arriving in the weeks and months after the earthquake. “At the 48-hours mark [after the earthquake struck] we had the Crisis Response Group from the Air Force of about 70 handlers move into the airport with their material handling equipment. They were out of New Jersey in fact and had just got back from working [Hurricane] Katrina, and after three days were told to pack up and get out here,” explained Rear Admiral Mike Lefever, in charge of the US response to the quake. The US alone sent 400 flights with over 9,000 MT of relief supplies and equipment.

Funding was also initially a problem in Pakistan which, in contrast to the Tsunami, did not initially enjoy high levels of financial support. But finance was by no means the only obstacle. The earthquake in Pakistan tested agencies that flew in with small amounts of pre-positioned equipment, which were then forced on international shopping sprees to find adequate supplies of tents and blankets. Over half a million people were displaced without warmth or shelter as winter rapidly approached in late 2005. The world literally ran out of available ‘winterised’ tents in late 2005; and while factories worked round the clock to produce more, agencies had to find alternative shelters to protect the displaced.

Getting it into people’s hands

While getting emergency aid into a country and close to an affected population presents responders with sizable challenges, the actual matter of putting it into their hands is equally complex and difficult.

The devil is in the detail, because in many situations the population needing assistance may be spread out over wide and remote areas making final delivery of assistance impossible for logistical or economic reasons. People already weakened or traumatised by events need to be informed of the imminent arrival of aid and allowed to travel to distribution points. Correct screening and registration will need to have taken place – all requiring careful organisation. Mismanagement, corruption and bullying can result in aid distribution being poorly distributed where most needed, being diverted to individual local leaders or chiefs, or fail to assist more vulnerable groups who may be denied equal access to aid.

Socio-political issues aside, the logistical coordination and timely delivery of the different elements of assistance – food, medical help, water, shelter, sanitation, kitchen equipment, plastic sheeting, and fuel - is fraught with problems. In Pakistan, the earthquake took place in a part of the Himalayas covering possibly the two most mountainous provinces in the world. The logistical challenge of getting all the emergency provisions listed to approximately half a million people in remote, high altitude locations with the threat of a Himalaya winter approaching was unprecedented.

Also unparalleled was the extensive use of helicopters to deliver aid. According to James Reynolds of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Islamabad, “To bring large amounts of goods in the only realistic alternative [as roads were destroyed] was the use of helicopters on a scale which was new for us in terms of numbers of helicopters in the fleet – it must have been new for the UN as well.” It was. The combined air fleet comprising the Pakistani military, the numerous assisting military contingents, the UN and private helicopters hired by NGOs numbered more than 140. They formed an air bridge to the affected areas for months, making more than 28,600 sorties between October 2005 and March 2006; and the work continues today, almost eight months after the disaster.

In the history of international aid, this represents a stunning example of coordination and cooperation; a major accomplishment where aid was repeatedly delivered to the most remote mountain communities, and the injured were evacuated without any flight accidents or crashes. According to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Shaukut Azis, it was “the largest ever humanitarian emergency air-bridge in the history of the world”.

Staffing emergencies

In terms of available experienced workers, disasters of the magnitude of the tsunami or Pakistan create problems for agencies who may already be stretched or have few qualified staff. Recruiting is never a swift option when hours and days are of critical importance. Agencies normally rely on existing staff for immediate deployment and then start to recruit for new staff to take over from the first wave of managers.


Photo: IFRC
Flood damage revealed in Madagascar in 2001 as the waters receded. Most natural disasters globally affect a disproportionate number from the developing world who is many cases struggle for years to rebuild their lives after disasters strike
Despite the tens of international agencies that respond to emergencies, Katoch claims, “there are few major international agencies or NGOs that actually have significant experience in international disaster response. This is the case because disaster response has been a neglected facet of humanitarian aid.” Many agencies redeploy staff already on mission in complex emergencies or other aid programmes. The turnover of staff during emergency response is consequently fast for many agencies as they rotate, often inexperienced, staff into the disaster zone for short periods.

Many professionals who initially arrive following a natural disaster, such as search and rescue and paramedic staff, are deployed for a short period only. Doctors and surgeons may released from western hospitals for discrete periods of time. While people are willing to work for short periods to save lives in almost any condition, when it comes to longer complex emergencies in difficult, dangerous or bleak surroundings, agencies find it hard to recruit experienced staff. In the current context of Western Sudan, agencies complain that few senior managers are willing to be located in Darfur where they are most needed, in what has become a protracted emergency in a ‘no-frills’ context.

Apart from certain specialised tasks or roles that may require external staff, much of the work of disaster response can and does depend on an army of locally employed staff. In many cases in an emergency, those working for the UN or NGOs will have come from the communities affected or even have been caught up in the crisis themselves.

Using local, well-meaning volunteers can be a mixed blessing. They are normally unqualified and are traumatised themselves, and may contribute in a random unorganised way. Many may be related to those affected. In Pakistan, immediately after the earthquake, where 73,000 lay dead and where hundreds of thousands needed assistance, the arterial roads to the earthquake zones were clogged with hundreds of cars of Pakistani helpers trying to assist the victims. In addition to the landslide-damaged roads and broken bridges, rescuers and the Pakistani military were slowed in their work by cars and taxis blocking roads for many miles. However, the authorities considered that the outpouring of generosity and concern from other Pakistanis was sufficiently important to allow them to continue unhindered.

Katoch cites the example from Bam in Iran where 85 percent of the city was destroyed with over 30,000 killed after a tremor lasting some few seconds. In this case, about 1,300 international helpers from 34 countries had arrived in Bam by day four of the disaster. Their presence overwhelmed the local administration tasked to coordinate the response. Again, he cites coordination as a key component of effective response.

Disasters in context

Emergencies requiring international support predominantly occur in developing countries. The social, political and cultural constraints and complexities are a real and vital aspect of any response. This is especially true of slow-onset emergencies like drought, and complex emergencies involving conflict, such as Northern Uganda and Darfur, where responders have to steer a path through dangerous waters.

Getting assistance to those in need may serve to exacerbate existing tensions and power-struggles. Analysts consider the large amounts of food aid that came into Somalia in the early 1990s as directly related to the increased factional and clan warfare that has characterised the country ever since. Similar situations occurred in the Balkan war in the early 1990s, where not only resources but also aid personnel became targets, as they have in Chechnya, Northern Uganda and Afghanistan. The issue of maintaining neutrality for aid agencies in contexts which are not politically neutral has been the subject of much debate in the aid sector in the recent years and continues today.

Additionally, poverty is often the overriding context where local officials and relief administration by the authorities can be undermined by corruption, lack of capacity, inexperience and inefficiency. In some cases, the local administration may themselves be rendered ineffective or traumatised by the nature of the disaster. After the Tsunami in Indonesia, and in the Pakistan earthquake, the buildings and resources of the local authorities were destroyed and many of the personnel themselves killed or injured.

When it comes to refugees and internally displaced people living in camps, those responding to emergencies may face difficult ethical issues. In 1994 /5 , in the case of assisting fleeing Rwandan Hutus in camps in Goma, DRC, responders became aware that in many cases they were assisting those responsible for the genocide inside Rwanda. The same people were also violently controlling the camps and dictating term and conditions to aid workers. Aid agencies and the UN faced a similar situation fifteen years earlier in the Khmer Rouge-controlled camps along the Thai-Cambodian border following the Vietnam invasion that ousted the Pol Pot regime.

Doing no harm

The call in the aid sector to “do no harm”, first promoted by the writer Mary B. Anderson at the end of the 1990s, has led to deeper reflection that not all aid is good aid. To make the right judgement call, to take considered choices in the heat of a major humanitarian emergency, is a lot to ask for when delays in aid have mortal consequences. Wrong decisions may lead to longer-term problems, and yet the humanitarian imperative remains the focus of the responder.

Translating motivational images on television around the world into aid that assists those in need is not a straightforward matter. Instead, it is fraught with financial, logistical and political problems. In this context, when the Herculean task of successfully delivering emergency assistance to those in need is achieved, and when wide-scale human suffering is averted, those people and agencies involved have indeed pulled off something remarkable, and it may be a more unusual result than most suppose.

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