Tag Archives: Merlin

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

Depending on the organisations by which they’re employed, and the projects to which they’re assigned, humanitarian logisticians may become involved in construction or rehabilitation projects. People with civil engineering backgrounds and some management experience often make very good humanitarian logisticians for this reason. I studied international relations, politics, and French for my bachelor’s degree, and humanitarian work for my master’s degree, but I used to party with civil engineers (and all the other kinds of engineers) at UBC so I can pretend that I know a bit about all this stuff.

This is a typical centre de santé (health centre) supported by Merlin (Medical Emergency Relief International) in Obosango which is in the Lubutu health zone of Maniema Province in the DR Congo:

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This is a maternity which is in the final stages of being rehabilitated by Merlin in Osso, which is also in Lubutu health zone. The funding for the rehabilitation came from JOAC (Jersey Overseas Aid Commission), while funding for the medical support (drugs and medical equipment, trainings, staff incentives, etc) for almost all of Merlin’s activities in Maniema comes from DFID (the UK Department for International Development).

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The facilities in Osso, as you can see from the previous two photos, are a notch above those in Obasango. If there was money to rehabilitate the more than two dozen structures in the Lubutu and Obokote health zones, it would probably be done, but with the funding available two structures were chosen for rehabilitation and two for construction from scratch. These buildings are built using fairly simple construction methods.

Sand and gravel are donated by local communities and transported by Merlin to the construction sites, where cement powder provided by Merlin is mixed with the sand, gravel, and water to make cement for the foundations. Sand:

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For the walls of the buildings, clay soil is donated by local communities and turned into bricks using brick presses, then baked in brick ovens like this one:

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Once the bricks are ready, the walls start going up along the contours of the foundation as in this maternity being built from scratch in Omoyaki, in Obokote health zone of Maniema:

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The brickwork for the Kabakaba maternity starting to go up:

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This is the maternity in Mukwanyama, which is nearly finished being rehabilitated:

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Once the building is finished, the brick walls are covered with cement-based plaster, then painted. The second photo in this post shows what the plastered and painted walls look like at the end.

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At each structure supported by Merlin, a signboard is erected to let people know what the building is for, and who is helping support it:

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Of course, there are many, many problems that come up with building or rehabilitating buildings in places like the DR Congo. For example, the community usually needs to help with a certain amount of free labour. Sand, gravel, and clay are needed and if these were not donated by local villages the work would be far more difficult. Communities don’t always understand the usefulness of a health centre, and may even oppose the disruption that construction or rehabilitation can cause to their villages. Various levels of local government may try to impose harsh restrictions that prevent NGOs from working efficiently. If construction workers, masons, and roofers are brought in to do some of the work, the local community may become upset that local villagers are not being given the opportunity for paid employment to work on the project. When community members are responsible for part of the project, such a making and baking the bricks, they may simply not do it because they feel they need to spend their days tending their crops.

For all of these reasons, and many more, construction and rehabilitation projects can easily stumble or even fail completely. The two foundation photos of Omoyaki and Kabakaba (above), for instance, show halted works – the villagers had stopped working several weeks before for a number of reasons. In the photo below, the foundation of the Lubao centre de santé in Kailo health zone is barely visible. All that greenery you see is growing where the floor should be. This foundation has lain untouched for two years.

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In order to avoid problems like this, and to keep construction and rehabilitation projects moving along, a lot of community sensitisation is necessary. Staff members are needed to explain the importance of health for the local populace. These community sensitisers spend time in villages, often staying several nights at a time, motivating the community. With good sensitisers, the work tends to go relatively smoothly, and the sensitisation continues even after the buildings are completed so that the population actually uses them too.

Humanitarian Logitsics in a Nutshell – Part 4: Water

Water is generally considered the most important thing for human survival, so it makes sense that water plays a central part in humanitarian work. Humanitarian agencies need water for their staff and their projects, and the people they try to help need water to survive and maintain their health. Medical organisations and local hospitals and health clinics need large amounts of water to maintain a sanitary working environment.

Locating water sources, treating water that isn’t fit to drink, storing water, and distributing water are all jobs that frequently come under the responsibilities of a humanitarian logistician. Here are a few photos that show a little bit about water:

Storing water can be difficult. One method is to construct water towers, or place large tanks on stilts. The reason for putting them way up high is to allow for distribution using the natural pull of gravity. If the water storage points are at ground level, pumps are needed all the time for distribution. With tanks way up high, pumps are only needed to fill the tank. This water tower supplies water to the hospital in Kindu, the capital of Maniema province in the Democratic Republic of Congo:

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Another form of water storage is a water bladder. This is basically just a big bag, which can be transported on a flatbed truck from the filling point to the distribution point. They can be punctured, which means they need to be carefully placed. This bladder at the MSF-Belgium hospital in Lubutu, DRC is hooked up to a hose with a valve. The bladder is on a raised platform in order to use gravity to pump the water through the hose when needed.

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On a much smaller scale, water can be filtered and stored in filters like the one in the photo below. Water (preferably boiled and cooled) is put into the top half and the lid is put back on. There are ‘candles’ made of some sort of porous material in the top half, and in order for the water to get to the bottom half, it has to pass through these candles. The porous material filters out all the bad stuff, and drinking water comes out the little tap at the bottom. These filters can have from one up to five candle filters in them, and each candle can filter about one litre of water per hour. So the larger models with five candles can produce about five litres per hour. We usually use these for expat staff houses as well.

The water filter on the shelf in this photo is in a health clinic supported by Merlin in the Lubutu health zone in Maniema province, DRC:

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Water has to come from somewhere. Natural springs, groundwater, and wells are common sources of water for humanitarian projects. Rainwater can also be a source of water depending on the location and season. While people often use surface water such as lake water and river water for their needs, this has a much higher likelihood of causing health problems because of the low quality of surface water.

This is a natural groundwater source that was rehabilitated by Merlin (Medical Emergency Relief International) in a community called Pu Muzika in Obokote, DRC. The water source was already being used, but Merlin dug up the soil and created a natural filter using various sizes of gravel and sand, then covered it over again. They also created this concrete enclosure with a concrete storage tank and water pipes. The slab of concrete on top of the tank can be removed in order to insert chlorine to treat the water. This is done every few months, and the water that comes out of the three pipes is as good as anything that comes out of a Canadian tap.

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This is a water pump that pulls water up out of a well in the Sanzasili community of Lubutu, DRC. It was also a Merlin project. Note the concrete block at the base of the metal pump:

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This photo was taken a week before the previous photo. Note the lack of that concrete block. Over time, the force exerted on the pump had worn away at the concrete that held the pump in place. It then fell a couple feet into the well. The community used bricks to prop it up in order to keep using it:

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We were informed of the problem, and immediately went to the site to assess the damage and make an action plan to fix it. In addition to the pump issue, we found that we could barely get to the pump without falling into the mud. I barely managed with a few long leaps, but there’s no way it could be done with a 20kg jerrycan of water. The community members coming to get water were wading through mud that could go up nearly to their knees! They reported health problems associated with this, including ticks.

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We decided that, in addition to fixing the pump itself, we needed to make the water source more accessible to the community. To fix the pump problem, our rehabilitation officer made a rebar (the iron used to reinforce cement) cage and placed it around the pump, then put a wooden box around that. The wood held the pump at the correct height, and on a chosen day when the community knew the water would be temporarily unavailable, cement was poured into the wooden box. The ratio of cement powder to sand was much higher in this mix than usual, to create a really solid block.

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Mike, the project coordinator, told the rehabilitation officer that within 5 days he wanted to return to the site and walk all the way to the pump without getting his shoes wet. In order to make this possible, truckloads of laterite soil were transported from another community, and daily workers filled sacks with the soil and placed them in a row where they had cleared the brush.

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To deal with a small stream that was contributing to the mud swamp, a very strong bridge was built (there’s no point trying to stop water, as water will almost always win a fight against humans; it’s much better to find ways to get around/over it than to try to stop/divert it).

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Once the sacks of laterite have all been filled and placed, loose laterite will be placed on top so the sacks won’t be visible anymore, and the path won’t be slippery even in wet weather.

Sadly I have no photos of rainwater collection methods. Rainwater is collected at the Merlin Lubutu expat house, as it runs off the roof into gutters which feed into a 1000L water tank. When it’s been raining, the water coming out of the tap is clear. If it hasn’t rained in a while, water is brought from the Moyo River and pumped into the tank. This water is brown and has stuff floating in it. In this photo, water has been brought from the Moyo River to the office and is being pumped from a 1000L tank into barrels using the little diesel water pump in the bottom right corner:

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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 2: Communications Equipment

Every aid agency needs to be able to communicate in the field. The staff on the ground need to be able to communicate with each other, with staff in other locations in the country, and with head office. Often they need to be able to communicate with other aid organisations and the UN as well.

In most countries, when someone wants to speak with a friend or contact, a mobile phone or landline is available to both people and there’s no problem holding a conversation.

However, in countries where poverty is the norm and war or natural disasters (or often both) have prevented the development of a reliable communications network, alternate means often need to be used by aid agencies to communicate. There are many different different communications technologies used by aid agencies, but these are the most common:

Telephones are still widely used, as mobile phone companies have aggressively targeted developing countries in recent years. In fact, Africa is the world’s most important emerging market for mobile phone companies, as mobile networks are relatively cheap and easy to set up. Even most small towns in the Democratic Republic of Congo have mobile phone networks, but once you leave town your phone becomes not much more than an over sized pocket watch.

VHF (Very High Frequency) radios are a common sight among NGO workers. These are basically just very high quality walkie-talkies, which can be used to communicate with people up to 50km away (but not more than 10-15km in most circumstances). There are also mobile VHF stations which are mounted in vehicles with a small antenna on the roof, and VHF base stations which include a big antenna on a mast and which can transmit longer distances than the handsets. A common setup is to have a base station manned by the radio operator who keeps track of vehicle and staff movements, with key personnel having handsets and all vehicles having mobile stations. The most commonly used brand is Motorola; model names starting with GP are handsets and those starting with GM are mobile or base stations.

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Another type of radio used by humanitarian organisations is HF (High Frequency). These radios can transmit very long distances – even around the world in the right conditions. HF radios can either be base stations with a wire antenna mounted on masts, or mobile stations mounted on vehicles with a heavy autotuning antenna. The most common brand of HF radio you’ll see in the aid world is CODAN, an Australian company.

This is a CODAN HF radio kit that MSF-Belgium put together and lent to one of the Merlin-supported clinics in the Lubutu Health Zone, so they can make emergency calls to the MSF hospital which can then send an ambulance. The radio itself is the box with the yellow on it. They’ve mounted it, along with a voltage stabiliser and two 12V batteries to power the unit, in a metal case that can easily be closed and transported.

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This is the antenna for the HF radio. Most of the wires in the photo are just guy wires to hold the mast upright; the two wires in the top left of the photo form half of the antenna which is held at three points. The centre of the antenna is held by the mast in the photo while the two ends are on shorter masts not visible in this photo. This antenna is connected by a cable to the radio unit in the previous photo.

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This is the MSF ambulance at their hospital in Lubutu. The big black antenna on the front corner above the headlights is the CODAN HF autotuning antenna. Inside that black part, the antenna actually has a moving part that self-adjusts to change the effective length of the coiled wire inside, in order to send and receive messages. There’s a radio mounted inside the Toyota LandCruiser, usually mounted behind the front passenger seat, and a microphone mounted on the dashboard for the driver or passenger to use.

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Although mobile phones won’t work in the middle of the jungle in DR Congo, satellite phones will work anywhere if you can get a clear enough view of the sky to get a satellite signal. These are Iridium satellite phones charging before being sent to Haïti. Thuraya satellite phones are used more commonly, but in Haïti there is poor network coverage by Thuraya so we sent Iridiums there instead. Satphones used to be small suitcase affairs, but these days they look like 1996 mobile phones. The advantage to satphones is that they work in the middle of nowhere and are easy to carry. The disadvantage is that phone calls are extremely expensive – often about USD 7/minute!

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Another type of satellite phone, which can be used for phone calls if needed but is designed for data transmission (basically a very slow internet connection), is the BGAN. These are BGAN units charging. They have to be pointed in the correct direction to “see” the satellite and make a connection, then a computer can be connected and very slow internet connection can be established. They emit dangerous radiation, however, so you have to make sure that the white panels are facing away from humans when the BGAN is powered on. As with Thurayas and Iridiums, BGANs offer the advantage of a data connection just about anywhere in the world, but the same disadvantage that usage is very expensive. Some agencies program them to allow only email clients (e.g. MS Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird) to send and receive emails but no internet browser use.

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When an aid agency sets up a base, a regular internet connection is generally required, so a common solution is to set up a satellite dish at the base which is supposed to provide an acceptably fast internet connection for a monthly fee rather than the exorbitant sums charged for BGAN use.

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All this comms equipment needs to be powered in order to work, but in the middle of nowhere there’s usually no reliable power company lighting the town or village. Energy will be the topic of the next post.