Reaching fast relief goods and services to remote areas
We always find that international communities, including Bangladeshis living abroad, donate generously whenever a mega-disaster hits Bangladesh. According to recent reports, around $550 million have been pledged by donor nations, World Bank and Asian Development Bank. However, even after one week since the cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh, millions of people in the remote areas had received little or no relief at all. Roads and ferry ghats were damaged by the cyclone. The only mode of immediate and fast relief delivery to these remote areas is helicopters. Bangladesh Armed Forces do an excellent job as first responders to this kind of disasters. Our soldiers and officers are a dedicated and competent lot, but their mission is often hobbled by lack of sufficient logistical support -- most importantly an adequate number of helicopters for fast delivery of relief goods to the remote and disconnected areas.
It is unrealistic to expect that roads and ferry ghats will remain undamaged in the event of this kind of natural disasters. Even if they were undamaged, transportation of goods by road to river ports, and subsequently to remote areas by water vessels takes too long a time to provide immediate aid to the victims. In the mean time, they suffer painfully from lack of food, safe drinking water and medical treatment. All these heighten the risk of widespread disease and even death from starvation.
Now the question is: "can we do something to overcome this obstacle?" Can the government make prior arrangements with either neighbouring nations or large private helicopter rental companies to arrange for short-term rental of the required number of helicopters along with the necessary pilots and mechanics for round the clock operation? By short-term, I mean the first three to five days after the disaster or the time it takes for the US Navy to reach Bangladesh with its helicopters. Is it unrealistic, or had we been just shying away from thinking about these steps?
Yes, it will cost a big sum. A very preliminary estimate shows that to rent one helicopter with a payload capacity of 10,000 pounds for one day we may need to spend around $ 0.1 million (one lakh US dollars). The actual costs may vary significantly, depending on timing of negotiations and the interest of the vendor. Also, this estimate does not include the mobilissation cost (staging at the nearest safe airport/ heliport before the disaster -- may or may not be inside Bangladesh), delivery cost (delivering the helicopters after the disaster to the airports/heliports in Bangladesh, where relief goods are stocked for loading), mechanics costs, insurance costs, and other numerous items that the Bangladesh Air Force and the vendor will have to negotiate.
We will also need to answer a number of major logistics questions in order to decide on the maximum number of helicopters that can be leased:
(a) How many helicopters can be safely operated from Dhaka and other cities, with relief goods, using the current airport/heliport support infrastructure? Will some modifications result in a significant increase in the number?
(b) How many helicopters can be simultaneously deployed to the disaster-ravaged areas without creating a flight safety hazard?
(c) How many helicopters are really necessary to provide immediate (within 24 hours) relief to all remote areas?
(d) How many helicopter-days we can afford with our reasonable budget, say 10 percent of expected total international aid. The contract should have the flexibility to revise the budget and actual number of helicopters rented if our needs and/or amount of international aid vary significantly from the expected amount.
The maximum number of helicopters rented should be no more than the lowest of the answers to the above questions. In addition, we will need flexibility in the contract -- tiered and phased approach and unit costs for each phase (mobilisation, delivery, and actual duration of rental etc.).
Let's look at total cost figures. If we rent 100 helicopter-days (50 helicopters for two days or 25 helicopters for four days, or a different optimum combination) then the rental cost will be around $10 million. On top of that, we will need to add mobilisation costs, delivery costs, mechanics costs etc. Let's assume that the total cost is around $20 million. Is it unreasonable to spend around $20 million out of the pledged $550 million (less than 5% of the total aid) to provide immediate rescue and relief to disaster-stricken areas that can not be reached otherwise? I think it is fully reasonable and necessary.
From our experience, we know that donations will pour in -- so why not go ahead and prepare lease agreements ahead of time? Of course, we can make it a multilateral effort, bringing in other international relief organisations, each of them committing, up-front, a certain amount to the helicopter leasing cost.
This concept does not replace other short-term and long-term relief and rehabilitation strategies, and long-term prevention methods proposed by other experts. It is proposed as an additional tool to address one aspect of the tragedy that we have so far failed to address.
The writer is a Senior Programme Analyst/Engineer and performs evaluation of different government programmes in the US.