The November wildfires in California, that killed at least 85 people, and left thousands of others homeless and in need of basic supplies, was a painful reminder that the humanitarian supply chain is in many ways just like the commercial supply chain.
And while the stakes are much higher with one, they both require the same tools and skills. To make sure that devastated populations get urgent care, relief organizations can take a page out of the logistics playbook, and focus on strategic warehousing, improving supplier relationships, staying flexible and streamlining processes.
Regional warehouses and supplier relationships
When a tsunami devastated Indonesia in December 2004, it took the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) 18 days to get an end-to-end supply chain going. Just two years later, when an earthquake hit Yogyakarta, on the island of Java, the supply chain providing non-food emergency relief kits —kitchen, hygiene and shelter supplies — was activated in just three days.
The major difference? Central verse regional supply centers. When the Yogyakarta earthquake struck in May 2006, the final training sessions at Kuala Lumpur’s new regional logistics unit were being conducted. The supply chain was launched from Malaysia as opposed to Geneva — the central headquarters were the supply chain started after the 2004 tsunami.
The closer you are to the disaster and the more supplies you already have on hand, the quicker you can deliver them.
But what about food, water and medicine? Perishable supplies present their own, very obvious complications.
Food and medicine could be stockpiled in strategic regional warehouses, like non-perishable emergency kits, ensuring faster delivery. A study of the response to the 2008 Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar shows that items stockpiled in Kuala Lampar arrived 64 percent faster than in-kind donations procured and transported by donors.
But while minimizing cost isn’t the main concern of the humanitarian supply chain, tossing unused but expired goods is far from ideal.
Building relationships with regional suppliers and having them commit resources in advance could help prepare a recovery supply chain and reduce waste.
Part of the IFRC’s success in delivering relief items in Myanmar was the relationships it had with suppliers and transporters in the area.
Preparing for the unexpected and unavoidable
Infrastructure took a harder hit in Myanmar than it did Yogyakarta and the supply chain took an extra two days to be fully launched.
And when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, it took six hours to make a 13 mile trip to the airport in Tacloban, where relief items from nearby countries were landing.
Predicting what challenges a humanitarian supply chain will face, is often as difficult as predicting the disaster itself. Processes for loading and unloading trucks, planes or ships should be in place in advance. But, like any good supply chain, flexibility is key. The ability to find new routes and new ways — like drones — to delivery necessities is just as important as the relief items themselves.
Streamlining the supply chain
Having supplies with long shelf lives strategically warehoused and relationships in place with suppliers to provide perishable items and refill stocks is step one.
Transportation and loading equipment like pallets and forklifts also need to be ready to get relief items where they are needed. Like physical supplies, these services could be committed in advance.
Relief organizations — along with building relationships with suppliers and shippers — also need to be communicating with other relief organizations.
Many other organizations, not just the IFRC, attempted to bring goods to Indonesia in 2004. There were so many agencies that the airport was overwhelmed and distribution slowed.
But communication, case studies of previous disaster responses, relationships and pre-committed goods and services will improve and prepare the understandably unpredictable humanitarian supply chain.