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Planning for the Worst

Rushing aid to crisis areas following a natural disaster isn't always successful as New Orleans showed. Now a Berlin logistics team has developed a model to speed up the crucial process.

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Relief came too late for many residents of New Orleans

The world looked on in disbelief at the US' wobbly efforts to coordinate aid and rescue efforts in the immediate aftermath of hurricane Katrina that pounded the city of New Orleans.

Even as there was no avoiding the impression that Washington's painfully slow response was more in line with those of developing nations, international experts remained equally baffled at the helplessness of volunteers and aid workers on the ground.

Bildgalerie 2 Hurrikan Katrina New Orleans

A National Guardsman is met by residents who spent days at the New Orleans Convention Center

"The scale (of the catastrophe) was apparently not clear," said logistician Phillipe Tufingki from the Technical University of Berlin. Tufingki explained that logisticians usually develop a mental scenario of the unfolding catastrophe in order to estimate the needs in such a situation. Measures for providing as adequate supplies and evacuation are then based upon that mental image.

"It seems that such a scenario, which has since played out there, was never thought out," Tufingki added.

Developing nations worst hit

According to the Berlin-based expert, emergency aid in several crisis regions around the world is always a problem in the first few days because the logistics aren't structured well enough.

Halbes Jahr nach Tsunami - Tourismusmisere

In a study on the role of logistics in emergency aid, Tufingki and his colleagues examined how endangered regions could better prepare for potential natural catastrophes. At the heart of the study were developing countries which are often hit harder by tragedies as was shown by the tsunami in South East Asia (photo) last year or the current famine in Niger.

"An international catastrophe aid system is actually only implemented in countries where there is a low level of self-help," Tufingki said. "And that's also right because nine out of ten catastrophes usually take place in developing countries."

Two-step model

In order to help spark a swifter response to catastrophes, Tufingki and his colleagues have developed a two-step model with the help of which a so-called "orientation framework" can be created for logistics managers in crisis areas. The model also helps logisticians derive crucial tips on the best course of action in emergency situations and ensure better planning and estimation of what is needed.

The scientists at Berlin's Technical University first analyzed an endangered region, for instance South East Asia, in order to gage how widespread the consequences of a natural catastrophe could be. That in turn helped to judge which medicines and foods the region might need in case of a crisis and also led the researchers to calculate where the aid transport was needed and how best to delivered that aid.

All the estimations are based on what the scientists already know about the logistics of big companies such as Deutsche Post -- knowledge that Tufingki and his colleagues try to translate to the logistics aspect of natural catastrophes. According to Tufingki, timely planning as well as an apt response are of prime importance.

Cooperation of utmost importance

The Berlin logistician pointed out that most existing funds in the field are mostly meant for aid supplies tied closely to the occurrence of a natural disaster.

Bildgalerie 2 Hurrikan Katrina

"There are organizations that have managed to break free of that a bit and created their own funds. For instance, the Red Cross has developed software in order to follow their logistical structures and to know where their goods are," Tufingki said. "These are very costly measures but, in times of emergency, they can significantly speed up aid and help make it more efficient."

Tufingki added that aid organizations didn't need to just plan well when it comes to emergencies, but also agree on which aid group could be mobilized when. In other words, organizations simply had to work better with each other.

"Such work that transcends organizations doesn't actually exist," Tufingki said, adding that better networking was needed.

"When there are ever increasing catastrophes, it's even more important that the resources are well utilized," Tufingki said. "If everyone is competing against each other then an artificial shortage arises that in turn drives up prices."

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