Bridging the Gap - Providing Access to Aid in Liberia
With a background in condition assessment of bridges and wharves, I’ve spent my share of time climbing over windy and wave swept structures but I wasn't prepared for the assessment of bridges for the UN's World Food Program in Liberia. This had my heart in my mouth.
Watching a driver pick his way across a log bridge with margins of error of just inches, I didn't like to think what would happen should he misjudge his wheel position. We were in upcountry Liberia, near the border with Côte d'Ivoire and a very long way from any help. If our UN Landcruiser were to drop a wheel off the log, it would end up in the creek and the driver would be reliant on my meagre help. We were out of cell phone range, out of VHF range and, at least until nightfall, out of HF range. Walking was out of the question and there was no passing traffic. We were very definitely on our own. Fortunately my driver did his job well.
How does an ordinary Australian engineer end up in a remote part of Africa? Until ten years ago I’d enjoyed a varied, satisfying and mostly unexceptional career in structural design but slowly came to feel I could be doing more. When I heard of RedR Australia there was no doubt where my career would be heading.
RedR Australia takes people with skills in demand by humanitarian emergency agencies, trains the people to work in emergencies then places them where people desperately need help.
My first deployment was to UNHCR in South Russia (Chechnya, Ingushetia and North Ossetia) in 2000. Two hundred thousand Chechens had fled the war in Groznyy and were facing the coming snows without shelter. Deployed as UNHCR's Shelter Coordinator, after the six month contract had run its course, I declined the invitation to renew. I was spent.
Since then I've carried out further assignments for UNHCR and WFP, in emergency situations ranging from Syria to South Lebanon to Somalia. A six-month stint following the tsunami in the Maldives for the Government of Maldives provided a welcome change of pace.
In Liberia my task was to ensure that WFP’s food trucks could reach their destinations. Liberia was already poor before the war five years ago, but after extensive damage to infrastructure the country is now less able to cope with crises. With recent political turmoil in neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire, several thousand refugees had crossed into Liberia. Within a month of my arrival in February this number had increased to more than one hundred thousand.
WFP was bringing food overland from Sierra Leone and Guinea as well as by ship through the Port of Monrovia. Liberian roads had not seen maintenance for years. Unsealed, virtually none were suitable for trucks.
To define the scope of work, roads and bridges were mapped and assessed. I was driven several thousand kilometres with GPS and camera, scribbling notes as best I could in a bouncing car.
With this data we knew which roads and bridges needed work. Most of the bridges crossed small streams and were built from timber felled nearby. They rarely had a deck, making it tricky for pedestrian and motorcycle traffic but people coped.
At each crossing I’d alight and inspect the logs to determine their suitability for vehicular traffic. On my signal the driver would proceed while I watched the bridge for signs of distress. It was heart-stopping at times, watching the driver place the wheels accurately on the logs. He was good. There was plenty of evidence to show that others were not so good. I was happy to observe from outside the car.
Spending long days on the road brought logistical problems. The only safe drinking water was bottled water and this I carried from Monrovia, a day's drive away. Eating establishments were also few and far between, found only in the larger towns. The venues consisted of roofing to keep the rain off, tables and chairs but no menu. You ate what was on offer, usually soup with the meat of some animal.
Once our assessment was complete, we faced the next hurdle, finding machinery for earthworks. In the entire country there were only a handful of bulldozers, graders and front-end loaders. These were difficult to track down and when found they were usually in use by an agency or NGO, who weren’t going to give them up lightly.
With the rainy season rapidly approaching and with refugee numbers increasing, a contract was let with fellow UN agency UNOPS, which had been carrying out development work in the interior of Liberia. Their project was being concluded and the equipment coming free so I grabbed it for use in the border areas. The experience and professionalism of UNOPS proved invaluable.
Working in humanitarian emergencies is a huge contrast to my work in industry. It’s not rocket science but still it’s amongst the most difficult work I’ve done. It demands dedication, persistence and initiative. Out in the bush, at times I felt I was fighting the battle totally alone but of course there were plenty of others in the team, working equally hard. And the rewards make it worthwhile. To receive heartfelt thanks from just one beneficiary is very moving.
One memory I shall keep close. On the road, close to the Ivory Coast border hours from the nearest town I came upon a refugee family: parents and five children with the oldest about six. The border was twenty kilometres behind them and they’d been walking all day in the sticky heat. I asked where they’d come from and where they were heading.
They’d left home because the night before, armed men had visited them and told them if they were still in their house in twenty-four hours they’d be killed. They fled immediately across the border but didn’t know where they could go.
Now the nearest town was another twenty-five kilometres ahead, a day's walk still. The mother was carrying the toddler, the father was carrying what family possessions they could bring, blankets and cooking gear. They were travelling at the pace of the youngest child. I wished them luck, and asked what they most needed. ‘Water’ was their one-word reply. I gave them most of what I had and they shuffled off with their extra burden. Neither they nor I knew if the next town could offer them help. I said a prayer for them and got back in my comfortable car.
Be the first to comment on Bridging the Gap - Providing Access to Aid in Liberia