As the world continues to face challenges that lead to man-made or natural disasters, the improvement of humanitarian logistics and ultimately the human condition is of greatest importance.
Representatives of various NGOs, the private sector, government, military, and academia came together for the 2010 Conference on Health and Humanitarian Logistics held between 4–5 March at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Experts from institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Department of Homeland Security, the Clinton Foundation, USAID, the American Red Cross, and Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FOCUS) shared expertise on planning, preparing, and responding to disasters, recovery and mitigation, as well as addressing societal problems related to health and short and long term humanitarian response.
The International Coordinator of the FOCUS International Coordinating Committee (FICC), Gulam Juma, participated in a panel discussion titled Education, Community Preparedness and Capacity Building. He delivered a presentation on the role of FOCUS, and its work in community disaster preparedness in various parts of the world.
Acknowledging the significant support of the World Food Programme and USAID, Juma stressed FOCUS' international role in responding to humanitarian crises. He highlighted the organisation's approach of involving and training local community volunteers in disaster preparedness, mitigation and response. Increasing local capacity, particularly in high mountain remote areas, he said, enables trained volunteers to be the first responders in the event of a disaster.
Juma illustrated the model using FOCUS' response to a recent landslide in the Hunza Valley. The disaster – which struck the mountainous region in January – buried villages in the northern Pakistan territory of Gilgit-Baltistan, killing at least 19 people and leaving over 250 families homeless. It also created a natural dam across the Hunza River that has resulted in the formation of a seven-mile lake, which – in addition to flooding several villages – is now threatening to burst and poses a danger to some 45 000 people who live downstream.
FOCUS trained search and rescue and community emergency response teams, consisting of male and female volunteers, were among the first responders to the landslide. But FOCUS had also managed to save lives through disaster mitigation. The agency conducts regular geological survey and hazard assessments in the vulnerable mountainous areas of northern Pakistan and elsewhere in the country. They had previously shared their assessment reports with the Gilgit-Baltistan government, resulting in the evacuation and relocation of families to safer areas prior to the landslide.
The potential of the lake to breach the dam remains a serious threat that FOCUS is carefully monitoring. “As part of its disaster prevention and resilience measures, FOCUS procured early warning siren devices – mobile-phone-SMS-triggered and battery-operated alarms,” said Juma. “These devices have been installed on a pilot basis along the Hunza River in case the dam shows signs of collapse.”
Juma also presented a case study that demonstrated the benefits of seismic retrofitting. In 2009, as part of its ongoing mission to foster disaster-resilient communities in Tajikistan, FOCUS had piloted the School Safety Initiative Project in collaboration with the Government of Tajikistan and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). When a 5.3 magnitude earthquake hit the Vanj district of Gorno Badakhshan earlier, over a thousand houses, six health centres, 15 schools and kindergartens, 10 other social facilities and 35 administrative buildings sustained damage to various degrees. Three schools in the affected area that had been seismically retrofitted through the School Safety Initiative Project withstood the tremors of the earthquake without incurring damage and subsequently became safe havens for the affected population.
On the last day of the conference, Georgia Tech hosted a breakfast for key participants and local dignitaries. At the breakfast, Gary Schuster, Provost of Georgia Tech gave accolades to all involved with the conference. Aziz Hashim, President of the Ismaili Council for the Southeast USA, was invited to address the gathering on the role of faith based communities and their increasing role in disaster preparedness.
“Georgia Tech is a world renowned institution, and as such, a part of the Knowledge Society that the Aga Khan Development Network would like to establish linkages with,” said President Hashim. “FOCUS' participation at the conference at Georgia Tech represented an opportunity to demonstrate the role of civil society organisations in meeting the needs of the population.”
The two recent Agreements of Cooperation signed between the Ismaili Imamat and the States of Texas and California focus on the potential contribution of these states as leaders in the areas of geology, seismology, and climate change. Mawlana Hazar Imam has also indicated other opportunities for collaboration between Imamat and Jamati institutions such as FOCUS and American universities and other public and private sector organisations in these fields.
“[During the conference] we were able to showcase the impact of a volunteer-based organisation such as FOCUS” added Hashim. “Coupling the exchange of best practices between world-class disaster relief organisations and NGOs with local infrastructure and local access facilitated by FOCUS, truly self-sustaining solutions can be formulated which empower local communities during a crisis.”
Focus Humanitarian Assistance is an affiliate of the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of institutions dedicated to improving living conditions and opportunities for the poor, without regard to their faith, origin or gender. Underlying the establishment of FOCUS is a history of successful initiatives to assist people struck by natural and man-made disasters in South and Central Asia, and Africa.