Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Note on Logistics

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Remember, logistics is all about the five rights: the right goods, in the right quantity, to the right place, at the right time, at the right price. One of the main issues here (and one that I have seen very little coverage of) is that in a chaotic situation like this we just don’t know what are the right goods, the right quantities, or even the right place. Needs assessment is incredibly difficult, especially in view of how difficult it is to access some areas.

“So”, I hear you say, “just send as much as possible of everything, and we’ll sort things out later”. That would be a very nice idea, if we weren’t already struggling with overburdened and disrupted infrastructure (more about that later); everything that we send that is not needed, means that we cannot send something that is needed. This is a precarious juggling act, and although logisticians have some tools to deal with it (e.g. the much-vaunted kit system, a development from the 1980s first aid logistics revolution – but one that is nearing the end of its shelf life, for reasons that I will explain at some other time), it is still the major forgotten logistics challenge.

Furthermore, unused goods can become a serious liability after the crisis; e.g. the Indonesian government had to spend untold millions of dollars on disposal of unwanted goods after the 2004 tsunami, causing a serious burden on the reconstruction.

A second issue that is under-reported, is the logistics of logistics: logistics is an immensely fuel-hungry venture (think cars, think trucks, think planes and helicopters, think generators), and getting the fuel where it is needed is not easy. In this sense, Haiti will probably be rather easier than most crises, due to the proximity of two of the largest oil producing countries in the world, and the largest navy fleet in the world; expect one or more of the US Navy’s Brobdingnagian supply ships to turn up soon with large fuel stores.

A third main issue is the wide-spread destruction of physical infrastructure. Port-au-Prince’s harbour at the moment is effectively useless, the airport (not one with a very high capacity in the first place) is damaged, and roads are destroyed and blocked. Large transport helicopters would be immensely helpful but are by far the most fuel-guzzling mode of transport (there we go again with the juggling act) and are not that easy to get there because of their limited operational range; e.g. an Mi-26 (carrying 20 tonnes) ranges only 800 kilometres, which can be extended to 1900 kilometres using additional fuel tanks – but that would seriously impact on its load carrying capacity.

In the fourth place, communications will be difficult. Over the last years, aid organisations have become more and more reliant on telephone communications, and these will be disrupted and overburdened. Many organisations have lost their expertise in radio communications (five years ago, I could program and set up a Q-mac, a backpack-sized mobile HF transceiver, in ten minutes flat, three minutes if it was pre-programmed; I now would need a manual and at least 30 minutes), and many of their staff have no clue about radio protocol – which sounds boring but is absolutely necessary to prevent total chaos on your radio channels. As a result, communication will be a real challenge.

Fifth is coordination. There will be such a host of different organisations on the ground that it will be difficult to ensure that we don’t duplicate efforts (well, duplicate as little as possible). Even more important is to avoid hindering each other, e.g. by using the available infrastructure inefficiently, causing congestion. This is one of the reasons why I would seriously suggest smaller organisations and individuals (especially those that have no previous experience in emergency response) to stay away and not even consider going there before the third stage response starts to set in (probably in about two weeks). For the people on the ground, this means going to coordination meetings. People who have worked with me know that I mostly consider these as a waste of time (I think using personal networks is almost always much more effective and efficient) – but the one main exception is during the first phases of an emergency response. So yes, even in situations like this, humanitarian logistics will involve long hours in airless rooms trying to come to agreements and exchanging information; sorry to prick your romantic bubble.

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