Every earthquake, tsunami and flood I’ve ever worked on has one thing in common – the first relief team is always a local one.
Untrained volunteers from the community instinctively pull together to pull out the injured from heaps of rubble, to share scarce food, to care for separated children. Taxi drivers, lawyers, fruit-sellers, full-time mums and sulky teenagers all become one thing – rescue workers.
Nepal is no different. In the moments after Saturday’s quake, everyone rushed to help the person next to them. Now – four days later – families are still clustering together under fragile plastic sheets, supporting and comforting each other, even as their own food and water supplies dwindle.
On such a huge scale it’s a saddening and frustrating sight.
Like many INGOs, Save the Children had a significant presence in Nepal before the earthquake (we’ve been working here on development programmes since 1976), so we already had a stockpile of emergency supplies. But with the sheer scale of this earthquake, that stockpile was quickly exhausted.
Coming up against chaos
A call went out to Save the Children’s global team – Nepal needed emergency stocks, and emergency experts – immediately.
Several ‘emergency surge staff’ received the call on Saturday afternoon (including me), and within minutes our Logistics team were trying to get us on a plane.
Our plans were continually thwarted. First, the airport wasn’t open, then it was. The planes weren’t flying, then they were, but were diverted at the last minute to India, or China. In theory the team could then try and travel overland – but that would take an additional one or two days.
Planes laden with life-saving aid were similarly diverted. We were tearing our hair out, trying to get to Kathmandu (the capital of Nepal).
I finally managed to get a seat on a plane but, flying over Kathmandu, I and 50 other aid-workers peered desperately down at a damaged city that we were unable to reach. Kathmandu airport is small and the runway was chronically congested. We feared we were going to be diverted to India like the planes in front of us.
Finally, after five hours circling the runway, we made our descent and a jumble of exhausted aid-workers tumbled out. The skeleton staff at the airport struggled to keep up – reeling from the loss of their homes and loved ones, many staff understandably hadn’t come into work.
The chaos at the airport was an inauspicious start. What I didn’t know then was the extent of the logistical challenges we were facing.
Naively I’d assumed that the major hurdle was getting the aid into the country in the first place, but slowly the full picture emerged.
As teams attempted to leave Kathmandu to go to the epicentre of the quake and assess the damage, they were turned back by damaged roads and landslides. The electricity, phone and internet were down, so we couldn’t co-ordinate with communities, understand exactly what their needs were, or to tell them that we were trying to reach them.
At the same time as our logistics teams desperately tried to bring aid into the country, they needed to find warehouses which were still standing, secure and large enough to house the life-saving supplies.
The next challenge was finding enough trucks and fuel to move the aid to the warehouses, and then out to the communities. Our team worked through the night, forgetting to eat, and forgetting to sleep.
No short cuts
It’s frustrating for everyone – especially the affected families – when logistical challenges mean a distribution can’t happen immediately. But when you rush aid work, mistakes are made. And sometimes they can be deadly.
Taking too few supplies to a distribution can lead to an angry mob. Distributing at an un-researched site could mean you don’t reach the most vulnerable people, because they are sheltering at another location, or staying indoors at that time of day.
Handing out the wrong types of food free can undermine local markets, or make people sick. In short – assessments and planning, which take time, are wholly necessary for us to deliver a proper humanitarian response – to help, not harm.
But lofty humanitarian ideals perhaps don’t mean much to those families sheltering under a tree. That’s something that every humanitarian is painfully aware of. And God knows we all wish we could skip a few steps, take the odd short cut.
But we can’t – the repercussions are too serious. On the flip side, nothing competes with the feeling of exhilaration and accomplishment you get when you finish a well-managed, thoughtful and life-saving aid distribution.
Cameras, journalists and criticism travel faster than aid-work ever can, and I’m certain that negative analysis in the media of the slowness of the overall aid response is coming. But that’s ok.
It’s ok because today Save the Children sent three large trucks, heavily laden with aid, in three directions, out to three of the most affected sites.
It’s ok because we ran a distribution yesterday in Kathmandu, providing hundreds of families with secure shelter for the night, and we have a further 136 metric tonnes of aid on the way.
It’s ok because it’s important to constantly question ourselves and the efficacy of our delivery, and to hold ourselves to account to the people we serve.
Mostly though, it’s ok because we know the challenges we’ve overcome to get here, to support these families – doubtlessly all rescue workers themselves in those first few terrible hours – and help them pick up the pieces and get on with their lives.
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