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The logistics of getting aid into S.Sudan camps

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 16 Jan 2013 16:26 GMT
Author: Will Holden
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Global logistics company Agility donates in-kind services and expertise to the humanitarian community in major emergencies. Its partner International Medical Corps asked the firm to deploy staff to South Sudan last year to help manage the movement of relief supplies to crowded refugee camps cut off by the rainy season. Volunteers from Agility’s offices in Ireland, Switzerland and Malaysia worked in South Sudan for four to six weeks each. This blog, compiled from the experiences of Will Holden, Matthias Hurst and Saiful Bahri Bin Abbas, and written by Will Holden, gives a flavour of the challenges of getting aid into such a remote area.

The refugee camps on South Sudan’s northeastern border are spilling over with 110,000 people and their animals, which are often the only source of livelihood people have left and are too valuable to leave behind on the long walk to safety.

The overcrowded conditions make the camps breeding grounds for sickness, especially waterborne diseases during the rainy season. Outbreaks of Hepatitis A and E, acute jaundice, cholera and malaria are increasingly common.

International Medical Corps (IMC) has been working hard to reach refugees from the conflict in Sudan’s border areas with medical services. Aid staff show local village elders and tribe leaders how to recognise signs of jaundice. They test kids, young mothers and pregnant women for malnutrition. They vaccinate people, set up cholera treatment units and build latrines.

Three of us from Agility spent August and September on the ground in South Sudan, helping IMC set up its humanitarian supply chain. Our job was to manage the transport and freight functions. That meant making sure IMC had fuel, spare parts for vehicles and generators to power the refrigerators that store vaccines and medication. We also helped move relief supplies to the camps - a real challenge given the rain and mud that makes roads impassable.

The camps in the central and northern regions of South Sudan sit atop vast swamp lands. With torrential rains for nearly eight months of the year, this terrain is treacherous, if not impossible to navigate. Refugees, medical staff and animals can easily become stranded. And in many cases, barges, helicopters or air charters are the only feasible means of transport.

Some of our toughest work involved arranging and executing airlifts of aid supplies into the camps. Take, for example, an air charter headed for Walgak, a small village on the eastern side of South Sudan that’s particularly difficult to get to because it is located on a flood plain.

We had to move one tonne of freight, composed mostly of medicines but also basic emergency food like milk formula and Plumpy'Nut peanut paste. It sounds simple, but little did I know this would be the hardest task I had yet to face in my 20-year logistics career.

Everything was contingent on the weather. Airports in South Sudan are basic, and outside of the main airport in Juba, they are more or less dirt strips. When it rains, the runways quickly become unsuitable for landing. And because the rains are so heavy, even after it stops pouring, you need several days of dry weather to safely use the runways again.

You soon learn to make the most of Skype, as that is the quickest and most efficient way of staying in contact with the outposts and keeping a tab on weather forecasts throughout the day.

I have lost track of how many times we were ready to go over the course of a month. We had everyone on standby - the loaders ready, the goods weighed and packed, the vehicles and drivers to take the supplies to the airport, the charter company confirming the flight, the customs officials notified…only to have to call everyone at 7 am to say it had rained overnight in Walgak, and we had to stand down.

We were so close on one occasion that the plane was loaded and on its way, only to have to turn back mid-flight because it had started to rain. We had to offload everything and go back to square one.

The pressure was intense - we were all extremely conscious of the fact that people in Walgak had been cut off without supplies for weeks at this point. In our commercial day jobs, we work hard to avoid delays to meet our contractual obligations and win our customers’ loyalty. But in the humanitarian community, delays can literally cost lives. 

One day, my IMC counterpart in Walgak told me in our usual phone conversation about the weather that there had been no rain for three days and it looked like it was going to stay dry. I put everyone on standby again and set the alarm for 7. I was too nervous to sleep, and woke at 5:30 am expecting to hear it had rained overnight. But this time it hadn’t, and we had to jump on the opportunity. We could not let them down!

I was so determined to make sure it was a success that I got a mild case of sunstroke waiting on the runway while the plane was loading because I didn’t want to leave even for a few minutes!

Finally, I got the call. The plane had landed safely in Walgak, and the emergency relief items had arrived. This was the first delivery the IMC team had received in nearly eight long weeks. That was a good day.

TOUGH CONDITIONS DAY IN, DAY OUT

Our deployment to South Sudan was extremely difficult, both professionally and personally. Yet while we faced some tough situations, ultimately we all were heading home in a month or two.

That isn’t the case for the IMC workers who live in these conditions day in and day out. When I think back on my experience, the main thing that comes to mind is the people I met.

IMC aid workers are doing their best to improve the quality of life for people in the camps. They work long hours in extreme conditions. They are susceptible to illness and disease, and usually come down with something that would mean hospitalisation anywhere else, but over there it means just a day or two of rest and then back into the mix.

I also think of the local men and women doing their best to help others and improve their own lives, as their brand-new nation establishes itself. The general labourers live on approximately 200 South Sudanese pounds per week, which is about $40. It seems so little compared to other places around the world, and yet they work so hard. I am happy we were able to arrange logistics training for the local team, because long after we have gone, they will still be there.

I am thankful to have had the opportunity to be part of this amazing experience. We worked through many hurdles and hassles, survived illnesses big and small, were frustrated, exhausted, dirty and in need of clean water. But we all agree that Agility (and other logistics specialists) should continue to lend our expertise in humanitarian emergencies.

When we share our practices and standards, we increase the speed and efficiency of aid distribution. When corporations provide additional hands and knowledge to support these operations, we allow organisations like IMC to focus on their critical life-saving work.

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