Tag Archives: Logistics

Thinking outside the puddle

Have you ever got your car stuck in a big puddle, unable to dig the mud out from under the car to get moving again, because there’s so much water it just keeps filling the mud back in? Probably not. But, if it should ever happen to you, I suggest you think outside the puddle.

Our Mitsubishi L200 (a 4×4 pickup truck) entered a seemingly shallow puddle only to suddenly sink into a very deep part of the puddle. Within a second the rear differential was already sitting in the mud at the bottom of the puddle, so we were stuck.

Stuck in a puddle, you can't get out of

We got the shovel and hoe out, and tried to dig the mud out from underneath in order to get the vehicle moving again, but the puddle was too deep: water just kept pouring the mud back in under the car and making it sink further. Keeping the engine running to make sure water couldn’t get in and destroy it, we began waiting for people to walk by. Soon enough, we had 3 young men down to their boxer shorts trying to help us get unstuck, but still no success!

After about half an hour, a young man wearing a red sports jersey with Chinese lettering happened upon us. He took our hoe, and started walking off into the tall grass at the side of the road, forcing the grass down to the side to make a bit of a path, without explaining his strange actions.

Dude takes our hoe and walks off into the bush

After a minute or so, we began to understand: the young man first cleared some of the grass and then began loosening up the soil at the side of the road. He then began digging a trench about half a foot deep and two metres long, perpendicular to the road, leaving some soil at the edge of the puddle to keep the trench dry while working.

A trench starts to take shape at the side of the road

Once they judged the trench sufficiently awesome, my driver broke the dyke and the water began to flow out of the puddle.

Breaking the dyke

To speed up the flow of water out of the puddle, one guy continued lengthening the trench farther away from the road, and my driver and one other passer-by used their hands to push the water faster toward the trench.

Speeding up the flow of water into the trench to drain the puddle

Within ten minutes, the water level was low enough to dig out a bit of mud and for a dozen people (by this time, quite a crowd had gathered around) to stand only ankle-deep in the water. Together they rocked the vehicle side to side for about a minute while the driver revved the engine and pumped the clutch until the tires gripped well enough to drive out of the puddle and onto a dry part of the road. In total, the car had spent nearly an hour stuck in the puddle! Check out how happy my driver was afterwards:

Success!

The moral of the story: think outside the puddle. If you’re stuck, and the road is at the same or higher level than the surrounding area, put your civil engineering hat on and try emptying the puddle.

3 weeks in Lubutu

After spending the first two months of my humanitarian logistics field placement with Medical Emergency Relief International (Merlin) in Kindu, I was invited to fly north up to Lubutu to act as the interim logistician while the usual guy was on vacation. On May 19th, I flew up on a little Busy Bee Congo Let L-410A, which landed at Tingi-Tingi airport just outside the town of Lubutu. Tingi-Tingi is not much of an airport… although it has an official ICAO airport code, it’s actually just a straight section of the road that links Lubutu to Walikale. Merlin staff block both ends a few minutes before the plane lands so there aren’t any people or vehicles on it.

Takeoff after my arrival in Lubutu:

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This is the market on Lubutu’s main street, the same road as in the first photo but a few kilometres from the airport:

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Merlin’s Lubutu base supports 27 health centres in the Obokote and Lubutu health zones. During my first week there, I got to visit several of them. On the way to one such centre, this was the view of an MSF vehicle in the driver-side rear-view mirror of our LandCruiser:

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Inside one of the health centres:

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We also visited a few water sources that Merlin had rehabilitated to provide safe drinking water to local communities:

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One Sunday, a couple of us went to the Lac Vert (Green Lake) which is located 8km along a muddy old track through the jungle. It’s not the easiest road, as this very sketchy bridge demonstrates:

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There wasn’t really anything to do at the Green Lake other than swim and take photos of strange insects. I’m saving the bug pics for another post though.

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Lubutu is a 4 hour drive from Kisangani, the 3rd largest city in the DR Congo, so getting peanut butter, Dairymilk chocolate bars, and biscuits is pretty easy. Put these three together and you have a Lubutu Manwich. Try it sometime, it’s delicious:

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Of course, no blog post about a town is complete without a sunset photo or two. This one was taken looking directly West while driving home from the office:

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This was taken looking North-West through the wire mesh covering the window of the office which I called my own for 3 weeks:

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Cyclists, or tolékistes as they’re known in the DRC, frequently transport either goods or people from place to place. This guy seems to have decided he could make more money with a bench full of passengers than a single one on his rear rack:

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At the house, Mike (the boss) had 5 cute puppies which liked to run up and play with anyone’s ankles, regardless of whether said person was moving or not. One day I heard a loud squeal and looked down to see an airborne puppy, flying a few feet through the air ahead of my moving leg – it had been scooped up by my foot as I was walking full speed.

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One of the puppies was promised to Pam, the boss at our Punia base. June 11th, the day I finished my three week stint in Lubutu, I was flying to Goma with stops in Punia, Kindu, and Kampene on the way, so I was assigned to take the puppy to Pam in Punia. Mike and Okame (one of our drivers) boxed her up in an old inverter box with holes cut in the side, and off we went to the office for a few hours of morning work before the plane’s arrival:

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At the office the puppy ate some food and napped. Then, when it came time to head to the airport, she was put into a bigger box with holes cut in the sides and the seams taped shut. On the drive from the office to the airport she peed in the box (luckily we had put some plastic sheeting in the bottom) and then proceeded to lick up her own urine. In the small plane, I had to keep her on the seat beside me to make sure she wouldn’t break out of the box and run amok in the plane. About midway through the luckily short (15 minute) flight to Punia, she vomited inside the box and then for the next five minutes proceeded to lick that up too. As we descended for landing, she spent the final 3-4 minutes trying to break out of the box while I made sure she didn’t. She may look cute, and it was quite funny in many ways, but I think next time we should find someone with a tranquiliser dart before flying a puppy anywhere.

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After spending the weekend in Goma, I returned to Kindu along with a bunch of other staff members, where I spent the next week as interim logistician there before making another trip back to Goma on June 23rd.

How to make a simple fuel syphon with valve

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If you need to transfer fuel from a barrel to a jerry can, or from either of those containers into a fuel tank, but you don’t have a fuel pump on hand because you’ve been waiting six months for the supplier to send it to you (I won’t name names), then you’re stuck using a syphon to transfer your fuel.

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The simplest form of syphon consists of a rubber hose and your mouth. You insert one end of the rubber hose into a barrel of fuel and suck on the other end until you’ve got the fuel up near your lips. Next, you quickly remove the hose from your mouth and insert it into the jerry can opening. If the level of the fuel in the barrel is higher than the tip of the hose in the jerry can, gravity will pull the fuel in the hose down into the lower jerry can. As this fuel falls into the jerry can, the space it occupied in the hose needs to be filled which forces fuel to come up through the hose from the barrel.

The fuel will keep flowing until the level of fuel in the barrel is lower than the end of the hose in the jerry can (e.g. if you lift that end of the hose up, or if the level of fuel in the barrel drops far enough). It’s very common for fuel depot staff in developing countries to use their mouths in order to syphon fuel into jerry cans or vehicles in this way, but it’s not a healthy practice – doctors definitely do not recommend filling your mouth with fuel every once in a while, which happens frequently when syphoning fuel.

So, how to reduce this problem with very limited supplies available? A syphon with a valve is one partial solution: stick a valve on one end of your syphon hose, leave it in the open position, insert most of the hose into the fuel barrel, close the valve, then pull the hose until the valve end is below the level of fuel in the barrel. Point it into a jerry can, open the valve, and the fuel will start flowing. This works very well until the barrel becomes about 3/4 empty, at which point it’s a bit tough to get enough fuel in the hose to take advantage of gravity’s pull without any suction. So, if you don’t have a pumping mechanism then you still need to use your mouth once the fuel level becomes lower. Still, a syphon with valve reduces the amount of mouth-powered syphoning by about 75-80% which is a big improvement while waiting for a real fuel pump to arrive.

Testing with water from one barrel to another:

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Three staff members in Lubutu impressed that this actually works:

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Close-up of the syphon valve. Once we had created between the valve and hose a sufficiently airtight seal to establish that the syphon actually worked, we added a very short section of hose to the other side of the valve to insert into the jerry can or fuel tank, which reduced the potential for spillage:

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What you need to make a simple valve-operated fuel syphon:

  1. 1.5-2 metres of PVC reinforced hose (if you’re forced to use a section of unreinforced hose, you may need to strap something on to it to prevent it from kinking)
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  3. 1 ball valve with a connector diameter roughly the same as the hose
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  5. 2 nipples (this is the official plumbing term!) with threading that matches that of the valve
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  7. 2 screw/band hose clamps with diameter slightly larger than the hose
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  9. 1 roll of teflon tape
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Then put it all together:

  1. Cut a 10-15cm length from one end of the hose for the ‘pouring’ end
  2. Wind teflon tape several times around the threads on one of the nipples, then screw it into the end of the valve; do the same for the other nipple
  3. Slide one of the hose clamps loosely around one of the nipples
  4. Insert this nipple into the long length of hose; this may take a fair bit of force if you’ve chosen nearly equal diameters – twist the nipple clockwise as you push it in
  5. Once the hose is connected to the valve in this manner, slide the hose clamp into position a few millimetres from where the hose meets the valve, and tighten the clamp as much as you can using a flathead screwdriver
  6. Repeat steps 3-5 above for the short length of hose on the other side of the valve
  7. Test your new syphon with water; if the connection between hose and valve is not airtight, the water will simply fall back down into the water container as you lift the hose out.

Of course, as we put this together, I never mentioned to the guys that adding a plastic funnel to the long end of the hose would turn this contraption into a standard university beer bong

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Humanitarian Logistics in a Nutshell – Part 5b: More Construction and Rehabilitation

While I was in Lubutu as interim logistician from May 19 to June 11, I had the lucky chance to oversee a number of improvement projects being carried out on the office base. While the main focus of any humanitarian is on the community in which he/she is working, it’s important to remember that the national and international staff managing the program need to have a functional and safe working space.

One project involved hiring a subcontractor to rebuild the paillote (thatched-roof hut) that protects the 13kVA generator. Without a good, rainproof shelter, a very expensive generator could be badly damaged or destroyed by one of Lubutu’s unbelievably heavy mid-afternoon downpours, leaving the base with no source of electricity.

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The finished product, tested several times in the weeks that followed:

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We got another subcontractor to build a new hut for the guards, because it’s not very fun to work a 12 hour shift after being soaked to the bone:

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Another project during my stay was increasing the security of the base by building a new brick wall at the front to replace the bamboo fence and increasing the height of the brick walls on the sides of the base. These are four photos of the same section of wall; the first two were taken from inside, the last two from outside:

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A leaking building can be problematic if you’re using computers for most of your work, keeping binders of archived documents for donors on your shelves, and vital medicines in your storage rooms. Since there were many leaks in the office roof, the landlord agreed to replace it and Merlin (Medical Emergency Relief International) agreed to supervise the work. It was ridiculously loud but it was important work.

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Back to the walls – after the bricklaying was done, the walls were plastered with cement as you could see in two of the photos above. Following this, a tyrolienne was used to give the walls texture (I don’t know if this has any practical application, but it sure looks nice!). That metal machine – the tyrolienne – shoots out thousands of tiny drops of cement onto the wall as the worker winds a handle on the side of the box.

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Paint comes next, white and green to suit Merlin’s organisational image:

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An ultra-smooth area was created on which to paint an organisation logo and spraypainted before the logo was added:

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A shiny new roof and a bright new wall:

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Final touches – adding a hand-painted Merlin logo for visibility:

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It was really neat watching as the different improvements on the base were carried out and it was a good learning experience as I was able to ask lots of questions to our rehabilitation logistician and the different workers pictured in this post.

Well, that’s the last of my “Humanitarian Logistics in a Nutshell” posts. If you want to read some stuff written by someone who knows a lot more about what he’s talking about, check out Michael Keizer’s well-written blog on humanitarian logistics and other aid-related stuff: A Humourless Lot. He offers good insight in a writing style that’s very accessible.