Tag Archives: Haiti earthquake

Humanitarian Logistics in a Nutshell – Part 3: Energy

The last post I put up was about the different communications technologies used by humanitarian aid workers, which form part of the responsibilities of a humanitarian logistician. Of course, each one of those bits of equipment requires energy – most have batteries that need to be charged and others need to be connected to a mains power source (e.g. a wall outlet) or equivalent (e.g. an inverter that converts DC electricity stored in large batteries into AC electricity like the stuff that comes out of a wall outlet) to be operational.

In the countries in which humanitarian and development organisations work, however, a source of electricity is often hard to come by or non-existent. In the initial days of an emergency response, such as the surgical teams that Merlin (Medical Emergency Relief International) sent to Haïti after the earthquake in January, there’s usually no source of power at all.

So, how do these people power all their comms equipment, plus the lights and fridges and power tools and fans and water pumps and powered surgical instruments and cooking equipment and everything else that needs some sort of energy source to run? There are a number of different solutions to these problems:

Solar power is useful in many countries, because of the amount of sunlight they receive. However, solar panels are still very expensive and they don’t produce a large amount of electricity. Still, they have certain useful applications, such as the panel below which is mounted in Mukwanyama village in Maniema Province of DRC. It’s hooked up to the CODAN HF radio kit on loan from MSF Belgium, which the village clinic uses to make emergency calls for the MSF hospital ambulance from Lubutu (there’s a photo of the radio in the last post). This panel charges a couple of 12V batteries, just enough energy to use the radio for short amounts of time when needed.

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This large bank of solar panels at the Kindu airport can provide a fair bit of energy, though to be honest I don’t know how much, and I do know that the total cost of these panels was sky-high:

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A more commonly used means of producing electricity is the generator. A generator is basically a motor that’s used in the opposite way. For example, take the little motor out of a toy car and connect it to a little battery with a couple of wires and the motor turns because electricity is going into the motor. Now, replace the battery with a tiny lightbulb and spin the motor with your hand – the lightbulb will light up. A generator is a larger, more complex example of the same thing (hydroelectricity water turbines are, too). Fuel (usually diesel) makes the motor turn, which produces electricity.

This is a wee little 3 or 4 kVA portable generator that we sent to Haïti. I think it lasted a couple days before burning out because they plugged in too much stuff for such a small generator and ran it for long periods without cooling – big no-no’s in correct generator use.

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This is a much more powerful 22 kVA Perkins generator used to power the Merlin Kindu base – several dozen computers, fans, lights, radios, etc. The disadvantage of a good generator like this one is that it’s not portable – this thing is bloody heavy! Also, it consumes much more fuel which costs more money, so there’s no point in using a 22 kVA genset if you only need 5 kVA (there are other reasons for this, but it starts getting a bit technical).

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This is the 13 kVA generator currently used to power the Lubutu base, which has far smaller energy needs than the bigger Kindu base. It’s protected from the weather by a newly redone straw/leaf hut. The roof has to be redone twice a year to remain waterproof against the torrential downpours that can hit this area with little warning:

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For various reasons, generators can produce uneven current which can damage the stuff that’s plugged in, especially sensitive electronics such as computers and radio equipment. In order to protect these machines, surge protectors and voltage regulators are used. In this case, the Lubutu base has a massive voltage stabiliser connected directly to the generator so that all power going to the wall outlets has already been stabilised. I still keep a surge protector connected to my laptop because it never hurts to have extra protection.

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When you use a generator to power stuff, you need to start up the genset first and let it run a tiny bit before the electricity starts running into your equipment; otherwise the initial startup (like when starting your car) produces a spike in current which could damage your stuff. So generators have switches on them to start allowing the power through the connected wires, and often there’s a big switch to choose between different power sources such as city power and generator power, or between two different generators. This one in Kindu could use some tough love, as the wiring is a little sketchy, but it works. The middle position is off. I labelled the top as “générateur” and the bottom “SNEL” (Société Nationale de l’Electricité – local city power) because the guards who use it sometimes got confused which side was which.

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In Kindu, where I’ve spent 2/3 of my time so far in the DR Congo, the SNEL city power comes on most days for a bit. However, the current is unstable, which results in a lot of burnt lightbulbs and other problems with the electricals in the houses. Because of this, we stopped using SNEL power in two of our houses and use only a generator a few hours each day, which also charges some batteries using a little inverter to give us a few more hours of power once the generator is turned off. Batteries on the left, inverter on the right, power bar with surge protection is plugged into the inverter and computers etc are plugged into the power bar:

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Maintaining the generators, battery banks with their inverters, and the occasional solar panel, can take up a fair bit of a logistician’s time if he/she doesn’t have someone specifically assigned to those tasks. Often the head mechanic is in charge of generator maintenance because the main component of a generator is the motor. Generators also have filters that need to be changed, fuel and coolant reservoirs that need to be filled, and other things in common with vehicles.

Once a humanitarian worker has access to a power source, he/she can hook up the fridge and put some water bottles in the freezer for those days when the sun is blazing and a bottle of cold water is manna from heaven. But where to find that water?

Humanitarian Logistics in a Nutshell – Part 1: Transport

When an aid agency is running a program in a community, the program invariably requires the transport of people and goods from place to place to meet the needs of the community in question. This can range from small projects needing only a very small amount of supplies delivered to them from the nearest big city by road, right up to massive famine relief operations transporting hundreds of tonnes of food by cargo plane each day from warehouses far away.

This Ilyushin 76 strategic airlifter plane is being used to transport large quantities of supplies to various MONUC bases in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These planes have a capacity of around 45 tonnes! Incidentally, passengers in an Il-76 run by a different company a few years ago in DRC experienced a rather strange event.

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When Medical Emergency Relief International (Merlin) responded to the 2010 Haïti earthquake by setting up an emergency reconstructive surgery centre on a tennis court in Port-au-Prince, we had to send many tonnes of supplies from Europe to make it all possible. Thomas Cook Airlines donated free cargo space aboard some of their flights to the Dominican Republic, right next door to Haïti, so we loaded huge air pallets at Gatwick and Manchester airports with tonnes and tonnes of medical equipment. Air transport is very expensive, so the free cargo space was a lifesaver in the literal sense of the word.

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In more remote locations, when air transport is needed, only very small planes or helicopters can be used. A small Let L-410A airplane can carry around 2 tonnes of cargo if there are no passengers on board, and land on dirt airstrips or straight sections of road.

Medical supplies being transported by a Busy Bee Congo Let L-410A aircraft in Maniema Province:

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Offloading medical supplies at the Punia-Basenge dirt airstrip to a waiting Merlin LandCruiser:

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This is the Let L-410A landing at Tingi-Tingi Airport in Lubutu, which is actually just a straight section of the road that links Lubutu and Walikale. Before each landing, Merlin staff check the road and block it at both ends. The pilot does a loop over the road to see for himself that it’s safe to land, then comes down out of the sky and taxis over to our waiting vehicles to offload equipment and drugs and have a friendly chat.

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Land transport is really important for aid agencies as well. In a place like Canada, land transport consists of huge trucks, big trucks, medium trucks, small trucks, cars, and sometimes trains. In the places where aid agencies work, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, the options are occasionally big trucks, sometimes medium trucks, often pickup trucks and 4×4 vehicles such as Toyota LandCruisers, motorcycles, bicycles, and occasionally other contraptions like oxcarts.

This is an AWD (all wheel drive) medium-sized truck used to transport medical supplies to our projects in North Kivu province:

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One of our 4×4 LandCruiser pickups used in Lubutu to transport people and supplies all over the place:

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To transport several dozen mattresses from our Kindu office to clinics supported by our Pangi office we hired tolékistes, cyclists who transport things on roads that are not passable, or close to impassable, for vehicles. Often they walk the entire way, pushing the loaded bicycle along narrow forest paths and through mud that can be knee high in places. These men below pedaled and pushed about 140km over several days and all the mattresses arrived at their destination intact.

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When goods need to be shipped long distances without a rush, an alternative to expensive airfreight is seafreight. For instance, when setting up a program in Haïti, it soon became apparent that Merlin would need to purchase a few LandCruisers to get around the country. Logistics staff at head office in London arranged the purchase with a company based in Gibraltar, which arranged to ship them by sea from Gibraltar to Haïti for us to pick them up.

In some countries, aid agencies use boats on a smaller scaled, such as when moving around the Irrawaddy Delta in Burma, or transporting goods from place to place within DRC, where there are rivers everywhere. For instance, we transported about 30 bags of cement, each weighing 50kg, in a motorised pirogue from Kindu to Lubao along the Congo River (known along this stretch as the Lualaba River). A pirogue is a traditional canoe commonly used in the Congo, made by hollowing out a tree. On the right of this photo there’s something that looks like a spear, but it’s actually the paddle used for one of the smaller pirogues.

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There are other ways of transporting things in the places where aid agencies work, some of which really show the ingenuity of the people involved, and I’m sure in the years to come I’ll be able to post some photos of creative transport solutions in tough situations.

Merlin in Haiti: Like a Scene out of M*A*S*H

Some of the following photos may seem like they come from a modern remake of the classic TV series M*A*S*H, but they’re actually photos taken by Jeroen Oerlemans. The medics you see are not American army medics in Korea in the 1950s, but doctors and nurses from the UK working with Merlin (Medical Emergency Relief International) in Haïti in 2010. They’re currently working out of tents set up on a tennis court, which has earned the makeshift surgical centre the appropriately prestigious nickname Wimbledon.

These guys and gals are really amazing people. I’ve been lucky enough to meet several of them on two occasions now – the first was in October when we sent a surgical team to Padang, Indonesia following an earthquake that killed 784 people in that area. Just 8 days ago, they bought me a beer as we discussed their departure from London and I took notes on more items they needed us to procure for them. It’s been really great being part of a team assisting these trained professionals from afar; almost all the gear you see in these photos – including the headlamps, the tents they’re working in, the generators outside the tents providing power, and the scrubs they’re wearing – were procured and sent to Haïti by a small team of friendly logistics experts at Merlin head office in London, working their butts off to make sure these doctors and nurses have what they need to operate.

All the photos below were taken by Jeroen Oerlemans. Please see http://www.Merlin.org.uk/ for more information about our response to the Haiti earthquake and other crises around the world.

Photo by Jeroen Oerlemans

Photo by Jeroen Oerlemans

Photo by Jeroen Oerlemans

Photo by Jeroen Oerlemans

Photo by Jeroen Oerlemans

Photo by Jeroen Oerlemans

Photo by Jeroen Oerlemans

Photo by Jeroen Oerlemans

Photo by Jeroen Oerlemans

My First TV Appearance + The Merlin Response to the Haiti Earthquake

Yesterday I had my first TV appearance, on CNN. The footage was shot on Thursday, January 14th at Merlin (Medical Emergency Relief International) head office here in London. Richard Villar, the orthopaedic surgeon featured in the short video, is a very well-respected surgeon based in London who was also part of a Merlin team responding to the Pakistan earthquake of 2005.

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He is already performing surgical operations in Haiti after helping determine needs for our medical response in the area. The larger medical team, which includes experienced surgeons, A&E; (aka ER) specialists, an anaesthetist, and nurses, arrived today in Haiti. 4800kg of cargo should arrive tomorrow for them to set up an operations theatre in a set of large tents. Getting all that stuff loaded onto the plane kept four of us in a cargo warehouse at Gatwick Airport until 4am yesterday! Then two of us were awake again at 630am to get the team to the airport for check-in, along with 31 bags to check in, filled with survival gear (tents, sleeping bags, ready meals, water filters, etc) and medical equipment.

The check-in process was surprisingly easy for 11 people with 31 bags to check in. The airline (a Thomas Cook charter flight, with ground operations contracted to Servisair) assigned a check-in staff member just for us, named Eric. Eric was friendly and efficient, so it took us only about 10 minutes to get all the passports processed, and another 10 to get the bags all tagged and down the conveyor belt. Not only that, but they sent a suited representative down to make sure everything was running smoothly for us, and he gave the team access to the Servisair lounge to relax before their long flight to the Dominican Republic and subsequent drive across the border to Haiti.

It’s amazing how generous some people, and some companies, can be when there is a need. Thomas Cook Airlines has been terrifically generous and helpful in coordinating staff travel and cargo transport for us down to the Dominican Republic, and multiple hospitals and medical equipment suppliers have donated or given us big discounts on much-needed medical supplies when we asked.

It’s certainly a very interesting, and extremely educational, experience to be involved in an emergency response like this one. When we start getting some stories back from our team in the field, I’ll probably post one or two of them up here. If you want to read about the team’s daily activities, including a bridge collapsing directly in front of them right before they crossed, click here.