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Making airports fit for emergencies

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 Workers perform a GARD simulation at Rafic Harriri Airport in Lebanon. Photo: UNDP Lebanon

In March 2015, two major earthquakes hit Nepal, requiring a fast and vast humanitarian response. But authorities were forced to close the only international airport that could accommodate large aircraft, as its runway was deteriorating under the weight of the large planes. Delays ensued in the arrival of both relief goods and personnel.

Nepal’s situation is not unique. During major disasters, authorities and relief suppliers often face serious delays due to the strain on capacities, leaving relief supplies piling up or emergency materials and personnel held up at customs.

Managing the logistics of large scale disaster response is a complex operation. It involves military and civil agencies leading an effort that includes dozens or even hundreds of stakeholders. Logistics are further hampered by other factors: the lack of capacity to manage the huge inflow of relief materials, the inability to effectively coordinate with multiple stakeholders, the need to ensure compliance with customs and immigration regulations, and the inability to properly store and move goods, not to mention distribute them to the people in need.

Airport preparedness is a key element of disaster preparedness plans. The capacity to manage the influx of humanitarian aid and personnel largely determines the quality of humanitarian assistance. Although the scale of disasters is unpredictable, it’s possible to develop the capacities needed beforehand in order to ensure an effective humanitarian response that can help minimize loss of life and damages.

It is clear that training on disaster preparedness and disaster risk reduction (DRR) should not be limited to ‘DRR experts’ alone. Airports are the main access point for incoming international and national aid when a disaster strikes, so airport authorities need to be prepared to handle the response. This includes everyone, from cargo, customs and immigration to emergency fire services, security, and management. Ensuring that all of these people work together effectively and smoothly is critical to getting food, medicine and shelter to those who need it most.

As the lead on the ‘Get Airports Ready for Disaster’ (GARD) program, a joint venture with Deutsche Post DHL Group, I’ve had the pleasure of attending airport trainings and seeing the progress made. Since 2005, with the financial support of the German government, GARD has trained staff at airports worldwide, reaching over 600 people across 30 airports in 15 countries.  

The training has two main objectives:

  • 1) bringing together all stakeholders who would be involved in humanitarian operations to identify possible bottlenecks at the airport that could hold up operations

  • 2) working with the assembled team to determine practical recommendations for contingency planning.

It is great seeing this training in action, in particular how the groups work together to plan for a worst-case scenario. They draw up plans for every possible detail, whether it is to ensure they have enough aprons to land and park huge aircraft, equipment to transfer big pallets of goods from airplanes to trucks or holding areas, temporary coolers to store medicines and perishable food, or even the authority to commandeer the business lounge to set up an emergency center.  

As the program celebrates 10 years, what stands out about GARD is how this unique initiative pulls together the strength of UNDP (the lead agency on DRR in developing countries) and Deutsche Post DHL Group (the experts on aviation and logistics) to achieve results. Seeing as disasters affect everyone, it’s clear that public-private partnerships like GARD are essential to being fully prepared to save lives.

Climate change and disaster risk reduction Disaster risk reduction Crisis response Disaster risk management partnerships Private sector aid coordination and effectiveness Uthira Ravikumar