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Cyclone Nargis and the Sichuan earthquake: emergency logistics coordination and the politics of paperwork

November 4th, 2008 | By: Martin Arrand

The CILT‘s Humanitarian and Emergencies Logistics Professionals (HELP) Forum met again on Tuesday last week (28 Oct 2008). It was another interesting session, so I thought I would post a brief report (with a long title). My apologies if I have mangled any of the following in transcribing my notes. For those that don’t know, HELP aims to increase the professionalism and profile of logisticians working in the humanitarian and emergencies fields, and is supported by people working in NGOs, academia, various UN agencies and the private sector.

Update 18 Nov 08 – pdf copies of all the presentations for this forum meeting are now available on the CILT website at http://www.ciltuk.org.uk/pages/nargis

Cyclone Nargis

Matthew Hollingworth of the WFP, but now heading the Global Logistics Cluster (for which WFP is the lead agency), gave a very lucid account of his team’s work in Myanmar in the aftermath of Nargis in May this year. The Logs Cluster is independent of the UN, “owned” by a body called the Inter Agency Standing Committee, and its purpose is to “augment and supplement” logistics capabilities, both on the ground during an emergency response and also by developing preparedness.

In Myanmar this meant setting up a logistics hub in Yangon together with five further transit stores closer to the affected region. The main Yangon store was only about 3,000 sqm, and the transit stores even smaller, so the operation must have been very tight. The Logs Cluster also set up a common transport service, and importantly an information management system for the network. You will be familiar from the news reports of the time with the political and bureaucratic hurdles faced by those involved in the response. Although the Logs Cluster could not act as consignee on behalf of NGOs, it did put a lot of effort into helping them prepare the correct paperwork – no mean feat given that the regulations changed about half a dozen times during the course of the response.

Bottleneck management is a perennial supply chain theme, and it’s interesting to see where the constraints emerged. The primary mode of import of supplies was air, and at one point there was only a single forklift operating at the airfield in Yangon. That is hard enough, but can at least be mitigated with manual handling. It’s another matter to expedite paperwork through a government office with only one fax machine and regular power failures.

Once in country, 72% of material was distributed by water (these before and after pictures of the Irrawady Delta show why). Matthew’s account of setting up the transport service was enlightening: private barge owners were engaged, who then realised they had a new market and set up scheduled services to the delta (and didn’t feel the need to bump the price in a seller’s market).

Difficulties aside, this all demonstrates that humanitarian logistics practice and organisational infrastructure has come a long way since the 2004 tsunami. In addition to the activities of the Logs Cluster, there has been a general move by the larger organisations to holding emergency stocks in a decentralised way, within the regions in which they are consumed. Matthew made the point that these are a kind of “best standard” stock – the most versatile supplies, but not generally the best for any particular circumstance. This approach has certainly increased supply chain agility (and possibly decreased cost and CO2 given the manufacturing origin of much of the material). Nargis also demonstrates further supply chain advances outside the pure logistics area: the ESC (Emergency Shelter Cluster) set up the Joint Procurement Initiative and produced a common standard specification for shelter materials.

Of course the Logs Cluster is still only a supplementary service. Charlie Mason, Emergencies Logistics Coordinator for Save the Children also presented on SCF’s response. As SCF already had an established programme in Myanmar, it was in a better position than most, both in terms of legal/bureaucratic issues and established infrastructure. Not that it was easy: Charlie pointed out that of the 500 programme staff in country prior to the cyclone, none had “logistics” in their job title. SCF recruited 1500 new staff and set up 14 new offices, the HR implications of which make me shudder.

For SCF, logistics supports programme by “creating and maintaining the operational environment”, which is an excellent concise definition that underlines the broader scope of the role of the humanitarian logistician of his/her private-sector colleagues. However there was much of the recognisable “box-moving” operation of classical logistics: SCF used three warehouses in Yangon, and Charlie showed a video of the Household Kit collation operation. About 20 lines were kitted together to provide a set of household essentials for people whose homes had been washed away: pots, pans, plastic containers, etc. It looked much like a kitting operation you would find in a distribution centre in Daventry.

Sichuan Earthquake

Mike Whiting stepped in at the last minute to give us the contrasting view of the earthquake in Sichuan that struck Wenchuan County (汶川县 for those trying to improve their Mandarin) just over a week after Nargis hit Myanmar.

The level of human effort that went into the relief operation was staggering: Mike quoted 180,000 PLA troops deployed. The Chinese government already had plans in place covering earthquake-prone regions (of which it has many). Each at-risk rural county is twinned with an urban municipality, and the local government in these cities provides resources and coordination to the affected area. In this respect it resembles the kind of civil contingencies response we have in the UK. (The HELP Forum rounded off with an excellent presentation by Superintendent Malcolm Baker from SO15 Counter-Terrorism Command about how London coordinates such responses – I won’t give an account here, but if you are interested you should download the LESLP Major Incident Manual which gives full details.)

The Chinese government is also keen to improve: it is putting together a practical training institute for disaster preparedness, working with local government, PLA, commercial organisations and those from outside China.

Private sector involvement

During the various discussions there were several mentions of private sector involvement in humanitarian logistics which I thought were interesting to summarise. The first are the LETs (Logistics Emergency Teams), set up to work with the Logs Cluster by Agility, TNT and UPS. The LETs role is to provide skills, assets and services, and the idea is to make use of the existing global infrastructure of those companies.

There was also mention of Kuehne+Nagel’s offer to the humanitarian sector. Global logistics being an excellent example of an operation that provides economies of scale, this kind of shared service looks very promising.

And finally…

Just a thank you to Mike Whiting for arranging the session and being a friendly yet efficient Master of Ceremonies.


Pingback from Supply Chain View » More on the Nargis air operation in Logistics and Transport Focus
Time 5 November 2008 at 1:04 pm

[…] forgot to mention in my post yesterday about last week’s HELP Forum meeting that Mike Whiting has also written about the air operation during Nargis, both the air-bridge from […]

Comment from Mike Whiting
Time 5 November 2008 at 4:42 pm


An excellent document, thank you. Thank you also for the ‘nice’ words. I guess that is yet another beer I owe you!

Yours aye,


Comment from Martin Arrand
Time 5 November 2008 at 5:04 pm

No problem Mike – you did make sure there were enough sandwiches left for those of us who registered late for the event! (Wouldn’t say no to a beer, though.)