One month after Nepal quake, a struggle for aid

"Where is the aid?" I get asked this question from the media during almost every major disaster we respond to. The Nepal earthquake, which took place a month ago, has been no different.

Helping people understand why large volumes of aid are not arriving within 24 hours of a disaster is something that requires constant explanation.

It is always the "first responders" who make the most difference in the first days after a disaster -- and this includes the individuals, local organizations and companies that gather whatever supplies they can from local markets. They can load up a car or truck with food, blankets and other materials and deliver small amounts of aid rapidly.

The Red Cross, for its part, receives numerous offers of such support from well-wishers around the world, including donations of food items and second-hand clothes. Unfortunately, in international disasters we cannot accept these offers because the logistics systems required to collect and transport unsolicited goods are simply too costly and cumbersome. Most importantly, much of what is provided isn't in line with our needs on the ground. This means that despite the goodwill, these donations can clog the extremely tight capacities available to kick-start a large-scale relief operation.

Instead, the relief items that we distribute in disasters are very specific and conform to recognized humanitarian standards. We source them in bulk to keep costs low -- tarpaulins and tools like shovels and hammers used for rebuilding are sourced from China, for example, while pots and pans for kitchen sets come from India, plastic water containers from Germany, mosquito nets from Vietnam and tents and blankets come from Pakistan.

Our local partner, the Nepal Red Cross Society, was distributing its pre-positioned emergency relief supplies from day one, but with almost 1 million homes damaged or destroyed, we knew early on that international support, particularly in the area of emergency shelter, would be needed. One tarpaulin can be used to form a shelter for a family of five. Having delivered over 50,000 tarpaulins in the past month, our aim is to distribute another 200,000 before the monsoon rains set in.

To put this into some perspective, if you were to lay those 200,000 tarpaulins end to end, they would be 135 times the height of Mount Everest. Buying in this volume on the local market is simply not possible. So within hours of the disaster striking, we began mobilizing tarpaulins from stockpiles in our regional warehouses in Kuala Lumpur and Dubai.

Still, even though we had access to these materials, moving them into a landlocked country guarded by the Himalayas has been a major challenge. Air transport is vital to get the pipeline of relief materials flowing quickly, but Nepal only has one international airport capable of receiving air cargo. The fact that the earthquake damaged the runway meant even more restrictions were imposed on the weight of the cargo able to land at the airport. Each humanitarian agency is allocated two landing slots per day, and at the time of writing there was a backlog of over 100 relief flights waiting to arrive.

With the pipeline established and with immediate needs on the ground being covered through air transport, we are working through the other modes of transport, sea and road, to help speed the delivery of help.

Our main supply route within the next few weeks for most of the supplies will be overland, across the Indian border. With our regional stockpiles depleted, orders have been put out with our suppliers in different parts of the world. Meanwhile, the shelter materials coming from China will travel by sea to the port of Kolkata in India and then by road to Kathmandu. Altogether, travel time will be a month, with a few days for clearing the goods through customs.

Finally, once the goods are in country, they have to be stored. Yet in a nation that has just been through not one but two larges earthquakes, it's hard to find warehousing that is structurally sound enough for our volunteers to work in.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge is actually getting the goods to the people who really need them. Many of the worst affected communities are scattered in small remote settlements high in the mountains. Landslides are a constant hazard, and Nepal's poor road infrastructure means that it is only possible to transport supplies in relatively small quantities.

Turn off any main road and you are on 45-degree dirt tracks. When the track runs out, supplies have to be carried on foot to their final destination. In some places helicopters are an option, but they have their limitations, too. For example, finding a safe, flat landing space for a chopper designed for carrying cargo is not easy in terrain where the landscape is almost vertical.

Despite the multitude of challenges, the aid effort in Nepal gathers pace every day. Unfortunately for us, the TV news crews are no longer around to capture the story.

Patrick Fuller is a spokesman with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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