The art of ‘disaster relief logistics’

The catastrophic typhoon which hit the Philippines over the weekend has crippled a large area of the country. With 9.8m people affected, 660,000 displaced and local estimates of up to 10,000 deaths, the country is struggling to survive with its infrastructure badly damaged. This has resulted in a quick response from the ‘disaster relief’ segment of the international humanitarian logistics sector.

The high profile element of ‘disaster relief logistics’ is easy to identify. The United Nation’s World Food Programme for example has a dedicated logistics infrastructure which has already been mobilised to respond to the crisis. As the organisation’s Country Director Praveen Agrawal who returned today to Manila from the affected area, said: “The main challenges right now are related to logistics. Roads are blocked, airports are destroyed. As the UN agency leading the humanitarian community’s Logistics Cluster, WFP is working with the government to set up operational hubs and organize airlifts of essential supplies.”

The WFP has what it calls the ‘UN Humanitarian Response Depot’ which is an emergency inventory location for the Asia-Pacific region in Malaysia with stocks of “mobile storage units, pre-fabricated offices and generators”. Food including 44 tonnes of high-energy biscuits and “300kg of IT equipment including digital radios” are being sent from a similar facility in Dubai. The initial access point is likely to focus on the airport at Cebu on Leyte.

To provide ‘disaster relief’, many other organisations utilise their own unique supply chains in which food, medicine, clothing and more are distributed to those in need. For example, Doctors without Border is delivering 200 tons of medical and relief items such as vaccines, tents and hygiene kits into Cebu on chartered cargo planes from Dubai and Belgium.

Of course, efforts to overcome the disaster will require not just a response in the first few days but long term provisions as well. This is where the bigger LSPs probably have their most important function, with companies such as DHL operating dedicated capabilities, able to deliver the sorts of logistics resources required in such an event. These capabilities include the positioning of materials handling and depot management resources for small local airports and harbours. Initially, this sort of service is often delivered free of charge. However, in the long term, the burst of demand for specialist logistics resources such as air freighters or Ro-Ro shipping can provide a big opportunity for those logistics companies in a position to respond.