Aid worker diary: Learning to respond to cross-border disasters

9 December, 2014
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Valijon Ranoev joined OCHA’s Regional Office for Caucasus and Central Asia a few months ago. His job is simple to define, but simply massive to achieve: He is responsible for helping the humanitarian community in the region – local and international NGOs, governments and the international community – prepare for future disasters.

In October, Valijon helped organize a cross-border disaster simulation for the aid communities in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

It’s 8 o’clock in the morning. I am sitting in a brightly-lit conference hall in Khujand, Tajikistan’s second largest city, near its northern border with Kyrgyzstan.

We are informed that the surrounding area – the Fergana Valley – has just been hit by a strong earthquake, with several villages along the border suffering severe damage. And so we begin a day-long, two-country, inter-agency simulation exercise.

A simulation exercise like this is designed to allow humanitarian organizations and governments to test their readiness to jointly respond to a large-scale emergency.

For one day, we pretend that the worst case scenario has happened.

OCHA connecting partners

Our e-mail inboxes are quickly filling up with constantly updated information and numerous requests. Governments, international partners, affected people, media, donors – they all want to hear what the humanitarian community can do and what it will provide.

As OCHA’s National Disaster Response Adviser, I am the key link connecting all the different partners engaged in the response operation. And this time, my task is complicated by the fact that the “emergency” struck villages on both sides of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

I am constantly on Skype or on the phone with OCHA’s National Disaster Response Adviser in Kyrgyzstan. We are comparing information on the crisis we know so far. Together, we are finding gaps and opportunities in this response operation.

For instance, we find out that the World Food Programme on the Tajik side can supply enough food to feed affected people in both countries. We register these small successes and move on.

Needs assessments – the cornerstone of humanitarian response

Within an hour of the emergency announcement, our Rapid Response Teams (RRT) deploy to one of the affected villages.

“All I want right now is to have some rest,” says one young man in the affected village. Locals in this village had been trained by our partner NGO ACTED and the Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan to play roles of affected people. Our RRTs dissolve into the village and collect information on what the people need most urgently.

I want to be in the field but some of us have to stay behind and plan the response. Nobody is taking a break and we are forgetting that it is a simulation exercise.

End of exercise, beginning of more work

Eighty messages, dozens of meetings, and countless phone calls later, the simulation ends. The participants are all fired up and cannot wait to go over the lessons learned.

“I had never quite grasped the magnitude of the international humanitarian system,” says Colonel Anvardjon Kasimov, Deputy Head of the Regional Emergency Department of the Committee of Emergency Situations of Tajikistan, “Coordinating work with OCHA and partners was by far the most useful exercise for me and my colleagues.”

The verdict is unanimous: the simulation exercise was useful and revealing of many shortcomings in preparedness that must be addressed. These recommendations form an action plan that I will lead our humanitarian community to implement in the coming weeks and months.

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