As the unprecedented earthquake relief effort picks up pace in South Asia, international aid agencies say some valuable lessons were learned after the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster of nine and a half months ago. Unfortunately, given the difficult terrain and the massive scope of the latest disaster, teaching the lessons can be easier than following them.
The winding roads leading to the mountains of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir are jammed with large trucks packed with relief materials sent by voluntary groups. While the groups mean well, these narrow roads are more suited to light vehicles. Sometimes supplies have to be offloaded to allow these trucks to negotiate the steep passes, holding up traffic to the disaster areas for hours.
Aid workers fresh from handling last December's tsunami disaster say this is one example of how the best of intentions can hinder rather than help the cause. Brennon Jones is spokesman for the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Sri Lanka, one of the countries battered by the tsunami.
"You have hundreds of NGOs and other actors pouring to the scene with the best of intentions. What we learned was that they really need to be coordinated from the outset," said Mr. Jones. "In Sri Lanka for example, many of them did not take the time to check in with the government or to check in with the United Nations, nor did they coordinate with the other NGOs. This led to some problems such as inappropriate kinds of aid."
As with the tsunami, hundreds of volunteers including doctors, religious workers and youngsters eager to help out have often been the first to arrive at the scene of earthquake devastation. But they have not always come with what is most urgently needed.
In the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, Muzaffarabad, medical teams from everywhere rushed in to help. But Army clinics, attending to the influx of injured people, said they needed orthopedic implants and medical supplies, not more doctors. In Indian Kashmir, volunteers have brought rice for the survivors, but there are no stoves for cooking or utensils to eat with.
Similar chaos was witnessed in the initial days after the tsunami struck. In Southern India, tons of cooked food rotted and had to be thrown away. In tropical Sri Lanka, cold-weather clothing arrived from overseas.
Such scenes quickly led the authorities in India and Indonesia to set up centers to coordinate who would provide what. In Southern India, J. Radhakrishnan heads the tsunami relief operations in the worst-affected district of Nagapattinam.
"Just after a disaster, it is but natural there is an overwhelming humanitarian response, but it is not need-based, so once you send out a message that this is the need of the hour, the supplying agencies also reorient themselves quickly," said Mr. Radhakrishnan.
Aid workers in Kashmir have cited some instances this week of improved coordination compared with the tsunami. But there have also been complaints that the aid operation is poorly organized. There are complaints that the distribution is skewed - too much in some places, too little in others.
Aid officials say that just as in the tsunami, the relief effort is working under difficult circumstances and struggling to cater to huge numbers - two million or more people were made homeless by the earthquake, more than by the tsunami, and tens of thousands were injured. The logistical challenge is made even greater in this case, because the devastation is spread over a large area tucked high in remote mountain passes.
As a result, scenes of initial confusion are not surprising. The South Asian head of the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Bob McKerrow, says such problems can be ironed out if individuals, and voluntary groups work closely with the military and U.N. agencies.
"It takes a week before coordination mechanisms are functioning smoothly, and the relief flows almost automatically," he added. "We are getting there, it's looking good, but it will take another day or two to get to the real efficiency of the operation."
Aid workers say the relief effort should especially focus on children, who are likely to constitute a significant proportion of those affected. Tens of thousands of homes and schools have been destroyed in the earthquake, and many children have lost one or both parents. Jeff Keele is with the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. He helped oversee the rehabilitation of children affected by the tsunami in that country.
"Unless governments and aid organizations are able to quickly respond and provide for these families, children are definitely left more vulnerable," said Mr. Keele. "So it is really crucial to find out where the children [are] that are in the greatest need, and to try and provide support for them."
Recent disasters have showed that the world is ready to help the victims. Once again, aid from the international community and from local donors has been quick and generous. Perhaps a major lesson is that - as in the tsunami, as in Hurricane Katrina in the United States - if the scale of the disaster is large enough, confusion, lack of coordination and missed opportunities are all but inevitable.