The critical role of humanitarian logistics

17 October 2018

According to the Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2018, an estimated 201 million people in 134 countries needed international humanitarian assistance in 2017. In the last three months, the devastating natural disasters and humanitarian crises that have claimed lives and left millions homeless include the eruption of Guatemala’s Fuego Volcano, the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a series of earthquakes in Indonesia. While we are all familiar with the images of the aid workers on the ground who bravely respond to crises like these, Imperial Logistics chief strategy officer Cobus Rossouw says that there is a dramatic back story around the complex logistics of getting essential supplies and life-saving medicines to those in need as quickly as possible.

“The first responders that we usually see in news accounts of disasters and conflicts play a critical role in re-establishing the health infrastructure and getting the first medical aid treatment underway; but how do the medicines and medical products actually get to the disaster affected area? What must be done to get them there as quickly as possible; and who is working behind the scenes to achieve this?”

Humanitarian logistics is a branch of logistics that specialises in organising the delivery and warehousing of supplies during natural disasters and emergencies, Rossouw explains. It is a field in which Imperial Logistics group company Imres has established a global reputation.

“Imres has a long, proven track record of supporting non-governmental organisations (NGOs), governments and aid agencies in executing their emergency relief programmes. Over more than 35 years, the Netherlands based business has been sourcing and distributing the pharmaceuticals, medical consumables, medical kits and hospital equipment that preserves lives after natural and man-made disasters, disease outbreaks and violent conflicts,” he states.

The 2004 Tsunami that hit large parts of densely populated South East Asia and parts of East Africa, and killed 230 000 people, was one of the biggest natural disasters that the world has experienced in recent years. Rossouw recounts the disaster from Imres’s perspective: “It was Boxing Day 2004. At 7:58 local time, a seaquake with a magnitude of 9.3 hit the Indian Ocean about 160km west of Sumatra. Directly after the disaster occurred, the designated NGOs went in to assess the situation. Almost simultaneously, they contacted Imres on the company’s emergency response line. As it was Boxing Day, no one was in the office; but Imres’s core response team was notified and went to the office immediately to prepare whatever was needed to get the right products to the right destinations.

The core response team consists of logistics, warehouse and sales employees that are trained for these types of situations, he explains. They were continuously in close contact with the NGOs, assessing the products needed and actively advising on the fastest way to get the products to the destination.

“The enormous scale of the tsunami quickly became clear, and the first Interagency Emergency Health Kits (IEHKs), which Imres always has in stock, were made ready for transport. Within 24 hours, the first IEHKs were at the required destination. In the following days, a total of 84 complete IEHKs were transported to several parts of South East Asia and East Africa.”

Rossouw explains that the Interagency Emergency Health Kit (IEHK) is a standardised kit of essential medicines, supplies and equipment deployed by United Nations agencies and other partners that respond to large-scale emergencies. “This prepacked kit is designed for use when there is a disruption of medical supplies in an emergency situation. It efficiently fills the gap until the medical supply mechanisms are restored. One kit is designed to meet the basic health needs of 10 000 people for approximately three months.”

After the most urgent medical need was resolved through the IEHKs, Imres shipped several Reproductive Health Kits to the disaster struck areas, which provided priority reproductive health services to the displaced populations.

The 2014/2015 Ebola outbreak in West-Africa was the most widespread ever and resulted in 11 310 deaths in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. “The NGOs and Imres had little experience with an outbreak of this scale,” Rossouw says. “Imres’s core response team was bolstered with additional staff from our purchase department as we needed to source personal protective equipment (PPE) that was not in our core product range at that time. As time was against all involved in the crisis, we worked 24/7 to source and procure the right products, with the right specifications and quality, to the Ebola affected areas.”

The Imres purchase team focused on sourcing the available products while the logistics team developed the most efficient transport solutions and provided all the necessary paperwork.

One of the most recent disasters that Imres has responded to is the eruption of the Fuego Volcano in Guatemala in June this year. “The volcanic eruption destroyed the infrastructure of a large area, and Imres supplied Inter Agency Emergency Health kits to support the operations of health facilities on the ground.”

Ongoing humanitarian crises that Imres is involved in include the famine and cholera in Yemen and surrounding areas in sub Saharan Africa, for which Cholera Kits are being supplied. The company is also supporting the humanitarian aid efforts focused on the ongoing refugee crisis in Yemen, Syria, Kurdistan. Imres IEHKs, Reproductive Health Kits, Trauma Kits, Cholera Kits and Non-Communicable Disease Kits.

Rossouw contends that a letter of commendation to Imres from client the International Rescue Committee (IRC), after the delivery of emergency medical supplies to the survivors of Boko Haram terror in north-eastern Nigeria, reflects the commitment of humanitarian logistics service providers: “We got our drugs this morning, all the way up Boko Haram front lines,” the IRC said. “This region is notorious for difficulties in the supply chain. Drugs sometimes take six to seven months to reach us. We want to thank Imres for your prompt communication and response to our high-level emergency out here.”

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