It’s been two and a half days since a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, leveling the city and killing what the Red Cross is estimating up to 50,000 people. Hundreds of thousands more are injured or homeless.
Already- and who can blame them?- people are complaining at the slow pace of aid delivery. At the time of writing (Friday night in Australia) there had been reports of angry residents blocking roads with the bodies of earthquake victims in macabre protest (I’m not sure how this is supposed to improve aid delivery).
It isn’t uncommon, in the wake of a disaster, for aid to take a while to reach those who need it. There is always footage of some angry resident complaining that promised aid has not arrived. However in the prevailing culture of Port-au-Prince, dissatisfaction of this kind swiftly leads to violence. This is a problem that needs fixing fast, or there will be a lot of very cross Haitians, who have over the years repeatedly demonstrated a penchant for angry mobs and violent protest.
In addition, slow aid delivery gives the international community in general a bad name. The UN and NGOs get flak in the media. Our donors get suspicious and edgy. We get given less money. (I hear the eyeballs of the cynics out there rolling, but in reality this does mean, for better or for worse, less material assistance reaching people directly impacted by the disaster, which is ultimately what we’re about).
In the case of Haiti, there’s every reason to think that aid delivery is going to be slow, and far slower than appears acceptable in the face of a disaster of this magnitude. It will be easy to point the finger at governments, charities and the UN for not overcoming obstacles in their way and doing what they’re supposed to do best. However, let’s take a moment and look at why aid has been- and will continue to be- slow reaching Haiti’s victims.
Airports– Port-au-Prince has one. It’s small for an international airport. I’ve flown into it, and there’s not much there. I understand it actually has capacity for nine or ten planes at a time. Planes take time to land, to offload, and to take off again. There’s things like refueling, paperwork and clearances to consider. Different types of planes require different types of equipment to offload them, and different amounts of time.
The airport was damaged in the earthquake and is not yet back up to full capacity. Planes need fuel, but there’s very little available in Port-au-Prince, and it’s heavy and expensive to fly in. Airport staff are among the victims, and many will be digging their families out of rubble. The US army is reputed to be stepping in to manage the airport. A strict system to allow planes in and out of the airport will be established, placing an absolute ceiling on the physical volume of aid that can come in. In other words, it doesn’t matter how organized, prepared or resourced you are: there’s only one airport, and it can only process so much cargo a day.
Seaports- The main seaport in Port-au-Prince was damaged in the quake. The access road from the port to the city is ostensibly buckled five feet into the air. Aid ships have already been turned away from the dock. Offloading cargo ships at a modern dock isn’t a matter of pitching sacks over the side- there are 20- and 40-foot steel containers to contend with which must be craned or trucked off decks. If the heavy lifting gear is damaged, you can have all the aid supplies in the world- you can’t offload it. Until the port is functioning again, there will be serious restrictions on how aid can get through.
Roads– As of today the roads into Port-au-Prince from neighbouring provinces were largely accessible. However roads inside Port-au-Prince remained blocked by debris and by people too scared or unable to return home. Some roads are accessible by four-wheel drive. Heavy trucks- those not damaged in the quake- will struggle to get through the debris. There will be a limited number of transport vehicles (and drivers to run them) available, and a limited number of access roads to drive on until they are cleared. So even if supplies make it to key points of entry, distributing them within the city will be a slow process, again limited by available logistical resources.
Neighbours– The Dominican Republic borders Haiti, was unaffected by the earthquake, and has seaports and an international airport. It is already established as an alternative logistics hub for the relief effort. Roads between the two countries aren’t great and there are reputed to be some safety issues in driving them. Again the limitations on (and inflated cost of) transportation vehicles- trucks and helicopters- from the DR to Haiti will be the main limiting factor.
Communications– Landline, cell-phone and internet communications (not to mention power) are all down at the moment in Port-au-Prince, so communicating with different parts of the city to identify access routes, populations, resources and alternative solutions is difficult. Communicating needs to the outside world is also difficult. Problem-solving, especially where multiple stakeholders are involved, such as trucking companies, government bodies or partner NGOs, is complex and frustrating when telecommunications are not functioning.
Staff– Many if not most of the UN and international agency staff- national and expatriate- in Port-au-Prince at the time of the earthquake have been affected. Some have been killed. Many have lost homes, or loved ones, or both. Many will be unable to assist in relief operations. Key roles lie unfilled. The same is true of transportation companies, service providers, and government departments overseeing infrastructure and logistics. New staff are flying in to fill some of these gaps, but they are less familiar with the Haitian context and will not make decisions as smoothly or as quickly as their local counterparts may have.
Solutions– All of this not to say that the operation is hopeless, or nothing can be done. The response community as a whole and as individuals are aware of these challenges, and are tackling them in a myriad of different ways, so that hopefully, over the coming days, solutions will be found. Access roads can be cleared, staff brought up to speed, communication systems replaced and streamlined systems put in place. However the reality is, this will still take time.
During this time, an equal reality is that people will die. Men, women and children injured in the earthquake will not get the treatment they need. Infants forced to drink unclean water because the pipe network has broken will die from dehydration brought about through diarrhoeal disease. Frail or chronically ill people left shocked and exposed without shelter may pass away.
We acknowledge this will happen. But the constraints listed above will not simply go away because we don’t like them. We will address them as quickly and efficiently as possible, and we hope that in doing so, the number of people who die needlessly will be minimalized. We hope that in doing so, we will not make unecessary mistakes that cost the lives of innocents.
Many of these challenges remain outside our direct control, lying either with physical constraints that are effectively absolute, or with levels of state authority we cannot easily manipulate.
Of course it is not acceptable to sit back, throw up our hands, and say, “Oh, there’s nothing we can do to solve this problem. Woe is me!” We must- and are- throwing all our efforts at these problems to solve them.
But in keeping the above in mind, we should be careful not to slam the international community unfairly for the slow delivery of assistance into a highly complex and challenge-wrought environment.
The optimum solution is to have the necessary systems and resources in place before an event like this occurs. Alternative logistics plans, sufficient hardware, expanded port and airport facilities, redundant systems of governance should an event paralyze the existing structure.
As you can see when you write it out, not very realistic.
What is important to bear in mind is that the most valuable resources are the ones already on the ground. Our organization, for example, already had stockpiles of emergency supplies based in different warehouses around the country that could be immediately mobilized, irregardless of airport snaffus. Likewise, over 350 in-country staff to call on to assist without needing to fly them in, many of them already trained and experienced in disaster response. Many other agencies are in a similar position.
Community members are always the first responders and the people who, far outstripping the efforts of the UN and NGOs, save the most lives. They pull loved ones and neighbours from the wreckage, share the limited resources they themselves have with their communities, and are both the first and most effective responders.
By providing the local people themselves with basic first-aid, rescue and survival skills- not to mention encouraging people to have an emergency stockpile- food, candles, bottled water- the effectiveness of this first response can be greatly enhanced. This is undoubtedly the most effective and impactful way forward, and is the way many NGOs, my own included, continue to approach disaster relief in concert with more traditional response mechanisms.
Today all we can really do is hope that the authorities able to make decisions make them wisely, and that those attempting to overcome obstacles find creative insight. And we can pray that the community members themselves who have survived the earthquake and are now supporting others will continue to have the strength and capacity to keep their brothers and sisters in good health and spirits.