Supplying at the frontlines

UNICEF responds to a wide variety of humanitarian crises around the world, and life-saving supplies are an important part of providing urgent assistance. These include medical, nutrition, shelter, and water and sanitation products that bring relief amid violent conflict and natural disasters. In 2017, the emergency supply response amounted to a global procurement spend of $553.3 million.

Preparing for the monsoon in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

On my first visit to the refugee camps, I went to Nayapara in Teknaf, just over an hour’s drive from Cox’s Bazar, on Bangladesh’s southern tip. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya driven from their homes in neighboring Myanmar were pouring into the country. It was early November when I got there, and more than 600,000 refugees had already crossed the border. Today, there are approximately 700,000.

UNICEF had been shipping out supplies to assist the refugees since September 2017. I had been helping send them to Cox’s Bazar from the UNICEF Supply Division office in Copenhagen, Denmark. During the first two weeks of the emergency, we had shipped approximately 300 tons of supplies on three chartered planes. Afterwards, supplies came on regular flights and by sea. Emergency goods were streaming into Cox’s Bazar.

Monsoon is not a matter of if but when.

What struck me in the camps was the sheer number of people. There were children playing outside, and men walking around, while women stayed in their shelters. I saw children slide down a hill with one of the collapsible jerrycans we had sent. The hills in the camp used to be covered with dense lush woods but the plants were stripped to make space for the refugees, leaving mounds of compacted silt instead.

Every year, Monsoon cyclones and heavy rains strike Bangladesh between March and September. The dusty hills in the camp were covered with homes built out of nothing more than tarpaulin and bamboo. There were shelters scattered everywhere. One of the many things that crossed my mind when I first visited the camp was what will happen to all these people during the Monsoon. It’s going to be a lot of mud, water and nowhere for the refugees to go.

My task as an Emergency Supply and Logistics Specialist was to streamline the flow of supplies into Cox’s Bazar and ensure they were delivered to the Rohingya children in the camps. I also had to help prepare for the next Monsoon. I was assisted by two warehouse specialists, Mohammed and Papa, from the Supply Division and the UNICEF Mali office, as well as three Bangladeshi staff: Manuiddin, Mohiouddin and Tanbir.

A group of children sliding down a hill on modified plastic cans with onlookers standing on the top of the hill.
© UNICEF/UN0161865/SujanChildren slide down a hill with collapsible jerrycans in a refugee camp in southern Bangladesh.

Monsoon is not a matter of if but when. We had three days of intense rain in December and just that had been indicative of what was to happen. The rainy season will create challenges. Access and moving things into the camps will be complicated because of the weather and mud. It is also going to be difficult to identify and quantify the supplies needed beforehand, and then store them safely so they don’t get damaged.

It was a good feeling seeing the supplies sent from the Supply Division being used to support Rohingya children’s education.

I assessed different warehouses to store the supplies, but we couldn’t find a building in Cox’s Bazar that was solid enough. We found a storage location in Chittagong, a city approximately five hours away.

To estimate what kind of damage the heavy rains and possible cyclones might do, we used a lot of data modelling with drone imagery of landslides and looked at the historical paths of cyclones. Based on that and other considerations, we pre-positioned a wide range of supplies in the warehouse: school equipment, water purification tablets, hygiene kits, nutrition and health supplies.

During the Monsoon, we will send another team of logisticians to back up the people working in Bangladesh. The extra support will be crucial when faced with the rains.

In January, on the last of my many visits to the camps in Bangladesh, I spotted rolls of tarpaulin that I had sent from Copenhagen being carried up a hill to build a learning centre. It was a good feeling seeing the supplies sent from the Supply Division being used to support Rohingya children’s education.

See more stories from the latest UNICEF Supply Annual Report.


Peta Barns is the Emergency Logistics Manager in UNICEF’s Supply Division. She spent five months working in Bangladesh on the response to the Rohingya refugee crisis, with two months as the Supply and Logistics Specialist. 

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