How important are sea ports and free zones when natural disasters strike? What role do they play to bring relief cargo to the needy with speed and efficiency? Aboubaker Omar Hadi, Chairman of the Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority (DPFZA), elaborates what needs to be done in this case and what DPFZA has been doing and keeps doing from a geographical location that is so crucial to many relief operations across Africa in receiving and distributing aid.

How crucial is logistics for disaster relief? Logistics is the backbone of any emergency response. When humanitarian disasters strike, it is imperative that resources are deployed rapidly and effectively to help the affected individuals. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, this is not always the case which can lead to unnecessary suffering and delays. When disaster strikes ports and transportation systems play a vital role in delivering national and international humanitarian assistance as they channel the required personnel, equipment and supplies that are brought into the affected country. For example, the international response to the East African food crisis from 2007 to 2012 relied heavily on coming through Africa's ports of Djibouti, Mombasa and Port Sudan. The availability of warehouses to store and deliver the humanitarian cargo is crucial to accelerate the transport turnaround.

What, according to you, must be done to develop processes that are capable of responding rapidly to unpredictable events? Firstly, an emergency national plan must be in place and rapidly deployed, while awaiting international aid. In order to ensure that humanitarian aid is effectively delivered, I believe it is important to consider the whole humanitarian logistics supply chain, ports, inland transport and warehouses from where the humanitarian cargo will be dispatched to the affected areas. Relief agencies, NGOs, governments and logistics specialists all need to work together in order to achieve the best results. There is currently a greater willingness for collaboration in the sector and different parties are more likely to work together, share ideas and improve their practices. But effective coordination and management among the whole humanitarian logistics chain is still a challenge. If one link in the logistics chain fails, it can severely hinder disaster relief operations. To ensure a sustainable solution, humanitarian organisations need to exploit the skills of logistics specialists more efficiently during the preparation phase as well as throughout relief response programs.

Could you highlight some of the steps taken by your organisation to offer relief in disaster struck regions? As the governing body that manages Djibouti's ports and free zones, we are continuously evolving and advancing our processes to become even more efficient. This ultimately has a positive effect on all shipments coming through our ports, including disaster relief. As cited previously, the DPFZA has played a key role during the East African food crisis a few years ago. Djibouti's ports have always been very important in times of draught and historically, our ports have played a major role in getting food and other products to Ethiopia following the aftermath of El Nino. Our ports have also played a very important role in ensuring that humanitarian assistance reaches those affected by the conflicts in South Sudan and Yemen. Earlier this year, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), in collaboration with Djibouti's government, officially opened a new humanitarian logistics base that will support assistance operations across the Horn of Africa by improving storage and transport of relief goods. This new hub will allow WFP and the wider humanitarian community to dispatch assistance more efficiently and effectively throughout the region. Through its custom bonded container yard, the hub will provide immediate savings on the handling of more than 4,000 containers that WFP moves through the port each year. The 25,000-metric tonne storage facility will also enhance the efficiency of bagged cargo. About one quarter of the people that WFP assists worldwide live in countries supported by the Djibouti hub. In 2015, WFP moved about 500,000 metric tonnes of food through Djibouti's ports. Our ports are the main gateway for food entering Ethiopia, and we are also a major trans-shipment point for WFP emergency operations in South Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia.

What are the key challenges with logistics in disaster stricken regions? There are many potential challenges to consider here, depending on the nature of the disaster. Land devastation or any areas where infrastructure is not sufficiently developed are major factors that can lower the effectiveness of logistics in disaster stricken areas. The shortage of trucks is also a major challenge quite often. At times, the lack of cooperation and integration between relief agencies and other involved parties throughout the humanitarian logistics chain can also be an issue. Finally, the lack of professionalisation of logistics personnel can also cause challenges as sometimes this specialised area is not given enough importance. A high percentage of senior management in relief operations are often from technical backgrounds such as nutrition or sanitation rather than operational ones such as logistics. This can lead to the supply chain management not being given the attention it is due.

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