12 Nov 2013

On the aid trail: delivering relief when disaster strikes

There are 4.3 million people needing urgent aid and an estimated 800,000 displaced. How can the aid effort begin to help – and what can the average person do? Channel 4 News speaks to the experts.

The scale of devastation in the Philippines is now reminiscent of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, according to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC). And it should know.

An estimated 12,000 people have died, and 11 million are thought to have been affected. But the situation on the ground means it is difficult to get a thorough assessment of the exact numbers.

If the scale of the disaster is hard to digest, the eyewitness accounts are searing. “There’s no food coming, but that is not as big a problem as dealing with the dead,” Juanita Experas, 63, told the New York Times. “There are dead bodies everywhere, and it is making us sick.”

People shouldn’t be under the illusion that if they give £10, it will go directly to jerrycans – John Plastow, Care International

Where can aid agencies even begin to make a difference? The situation is much more sophisticated that it once was. In the UK, the rapid response facility is activated by the Department for International Development (Difd).

And on an international level, the UN’s “cluster system” kicks into gear: a network of nine specific groups with representatives from international agencies, national and local authorities, which each have responsibility for urgent needs such as food, shelter or water.

The system is overseen by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) – whose tagline is “coordination saves lives” – and it allows organisations to pool resources, and coordinate what they are doing with various governments.

Care International is one of the 14 charities that make up the DEC, and is involved in the UN’s cluster system. “I’ve got a colleague, for example, who left on Friday, arrived in Manila on Saturday, and was out in Cebu on Saturday evening,” said John Plastow, Care International’s programme director.

“He went out and made an assessment on one or two worst affected islands – he’s a shelter specialist – and today he was in a meeting with Ocha…. That intelligence is then pooled.”

‘Emergency systems cost money’

It is already five days since Typhoon Haiyan hit – the worst typhoon ever to hit land. And yet war ships delivering aid from the US and UK governments are expected to take another five days to arrive. It is a long time to ask people to wait on much-needed food and water.

However experts say there is no viable alternative: planes are smaller, far more expensive to run, and a safe landing is not guaranteed. The Philippines’ Tacloban airport has only been accessible by the military, so boats appear to be the most reliable way of getting relief to those in hard-to-reach areas.

The ships are carrying masses of drinking water and equipment that can decontaminate sea water to the Philippines, and HMS Daring will also provide helicopter lift capability.

Logistics has been a nightmare – Valerie Amos, UN

Making sure the aid actually gets to those who need it, when a country’s infastructure is in tatters, is one of the biggest challenges in a disaster situation, say experts. Ted Chaiban from Unicef told an “ask-me-anything” thread on Reddit: “The biggest obstacle right now is access”.

And doing this properly is what takes up much of organisations’ funds. “Emergency systems cost money,” Mr Plastow told Channel 4 News. “People shouldn’t be under the illusion that if they give £10, it will go directly to jerrycans. But there isn’t wastage – it goes to professionals trying to do a proper, organised job. A credible and appropriate delivery of emergency assistance has to be done properly. I’ve seen plenty of horrible scenes, when people start to get tense.”

UN Aid Chief Valerie Amos expressed her frustration at the situation on Tuesday. “Logistics has been a nightmare,” she told the BBC from Manila while launching a $300m appeal for funds. “It took us three days to get some cars through from Manila to Tacloban. On Saturday when our first teams arrived they couldn’t leave the airport. It was much too difficult logistically, of course debris everywhere.”

How to help
The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) is made up of 14 charities who coordinate their efforts when a natural disaster strikes. Some of the DEC’s members are already working on the ground and the committee says the most urgent priorities for delivering aid are food, water and emergency shelter.

You can text DEC to 70000 to donate £5. Follow this link to donate to the DEC using a payment card, or follow this link to donate to the DEC via paypal.

The World Food Programme is dedicated to fighting worldwide hunger and is active during emergencies, getting food to where it’s needed. Follow this link to donate.

Medecins Sans Frontieres is the independent, medical organisation that delivers emergency medical aid. MSF doctors in the Philippines are currently working in the province of Leyte – the first area hit by Typhoon Haiyan – where much of the medical equipment and facilities have been washed away.

Humanitarian organisations based in the Philippines include the Community and Family Services International (CFSI): details of direct bank transfer can be found here>

And the ICRC is also working on the ground, coordinating relief via the Philippine Red Cross / Red Crescent and focusing its emergency response in the Samar province. Follow this link to donate.

‘Philanthropic help can impede relief efforts’

A previous example of a difficult, and uncoordinated, relief effort is the 2010 Haiti earthquake. An estimated 3 million people were affected by the quake in some way, and the death toll is thought to be well over 100,000.

But attempts to get the situation under control were hampered by the hundreds of new organisations trying to help, said Mr Plastow. “The big issue in Haiti were lots of ‘fly by night’ organisations who had good intentions, but little experience. And that can be an impediment to getting things going,” he told Channel 4 News.

“In the Philippines, because it’s not quite on the US’s back door, which in Haiti was a big problem, I don’t think we’ll have the same problem of well-intentioned, philanthropic help which can impede relief efforts.”

Aid organisations now try to build up relationships with local organisations on the ground all year round, so that if, and when, disaster strikes, the contacts have already been made.

“The efforts of local organisations and local relief effort – they need to be listened to,” Mr Plastow adds. “They understand the context. We work with partner organisations, and we have long-standing relationships with them.”

However it is beginning to become clear that those contributing to the relief operation in the Philippines are going to be in it for the long haul.

Dr Natasha Reyes, an emergency coordinator with Medecins Sans Frontieres, said on Monday that her team is working in a “relative black hole of information”. “We know from the very little we can see that the situation is terrible. But it’s what we don’t see that’s the most worrying.”

She added: “As a Filipino, I know that we’re a resilient people. We’ve been battered over and over again by natural disasters. So when I hear about people being so desperate, so stunned, so hopeless, it really tells me just how bad this is.”