Ten Logistical Challenges During A Disaster

Primary tabs

Recognizing and Address the Main Challenges

Ozlem Ergun, Pinar Keskinocak, Julie Swann, and Monica Villarreal
Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology

Disasters are wreaking havoc on human lives and nations' economies at an alarming * and rising - rate. According to the World Economic Forum, more than 180,000 deaths and more than $200 USD billion in economic losses occurred in 2005 alone. Whether it's a tsunami in the Pacific or a national event such as Hurricane Katrina, governments, non-profit organizations and private industries need to be better prepared to respond and recover from disasters, offering timely and necessary aid to those in need through efficient humanitarian supply chains.

Supply chain management and operations research recognize this, modeling a systems approach with the use of analytical tools such as forecasting, simulation, optimization, game theory, etc.

In order to achieve this, we must recognize and address the main challenges of humanitarian logistics:

1. High uncertainty in demand - Two earthquakes of similar magnitude may have entirely different outcomes if one hits a high population density area in a developing country, and the other hits a better-prepared city in a developed country. Relief demand is unknown both in size and type, and it is affected by dynamic and hard-to-measure factors such as disaster characteristics, local economy and infrastructure, social and political conditions, etc.

2. High uncertainty in timing - In general, it is difficult to predict exactly when a disaster is going to strike. This time frame could be relatively delimited as in a hurricane season or hardly predictable as in an earthquake. Therefore, one needs to be in a constant state of readiness and to plan during an uncertain time, which requires additional flexibility.

3.High uncertainty in location - We may know where the fault lines are, but we cannot predict either when or where an earthquake will happen. For other disasters such as hurricanes, we may have more information based on historical data and models that help us predict the path after it starts, but even a specific storm can change paths. Affected locations might also be dynamic as in the case of a Pandemic Influenza, so planning should account for this. Location uncertainty imposes additional challenges to preparedness activities such as relief supplies and equipment pre-positioning, infrastructure investment, etc.

4. High uncertainty and challenges in supply - Donations may be variable or restricted in their use by donors, while in-kind donations may also be inadequate and unmatched with the demand. Building up relationships with local vendors, usually in a very short period of time, may be a difficult task as well.

5. Challenges in collaboration among the multiple players and decision makers in a humanitarian supply chain - Each of the responders (governments, military, local authorities, etc.) may compete for limited resources to achieve their own goals, such as when many organizations needed the limited resources of the airports during the 2004 tsunami. Organizations and governments may also have different incentives that impair the effectiveness of collaborations.

6. The impact of the political, cultural and socioeconomic conditions of the region - Unawareness of specific local issues may cause even the best standalone plan to fail or become impractical. For example, genetically modified food is prohibited in some Southern African nations such as Zambia, restricting food aid programs. The human factor is also crucial in humanitarian operations, which includes language, customs, political views, etc.

7. The strong dependency of last mile operations on the location and disaster severity - Transportation infrastructure might be disrupted and required equipment may not be locally available, affecting the supply chain responsiveness. This can be aggravated by a limited location access or poor construction. This was the case of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, where people lived in mountainous regions and had limited aid access because of obstructed roads.

8. Limited telecommunications and information infrastructure - The Internet is still not widely available in some developing countries. Land-based phones and cellular phone communication towers might be down as a result of a disaster, as was the case after Hurricane Katrina hit. Also, since there might be more than one organization collecting data, it is common to find inconsistencies in the after-math reports.

9. Long-term impact of the many activities carried out during humanitarian operations - This happens as cities are rebuilt, people are relocated, new products and vendors introduced to the local market, etc. This is the case of the food aid monetization from the U.S. government, which starts with a donation of food to NGOs around the world, and then NGOs get funds for other aid programs by selling the in-kind donations in the local markets.

10. The success of humanitarian operations is hard to measure - Economic success is the standard performance measure in the pro-profit world. For non-profit organizations this evaluation is more complex, considering difficult-to-formulate elements such as unmet need fulfilled and more tractable ones like cash flow.


  • Workflow Status:Published
  • Created By:Barbara Christopher
  • Created:02/10/2009
  • Modified By:Fletcher Moore
  • Modified:10/07/2016