Singapore team helps clear cargo congestion at Kathmandu airport
DHL's Disaster Response Team faces challenges getting relief to quake survivors
When his plane reached Kathmandu in quake-hit Nepal, there was nowhere for it to land.
Not because there was too much debris from the 7.8-magnitude earthquake on April 25, but because every bit of space in the small airport was taken up by planes and cargo.
Ironically, Mr Michael Sobrielo, 42, is part of DHL's Disaster Response Team (DRT) sent to Nepal last Monday to prevent such congestion of cargo.
Speaking to The New Paper over the phone from Kathmandu yesterday morning, Mr Sobrielo said: "When we arrived last week, the whole tarmac was chaos. It was so full that there was no visible space for the planes to land."
The plane ended up circling the airport for about two hours before it could land, after which Mr Sobrielo and the DRT quickly set to work.
From 8am to 6pm daily, the team unloads relief goods off planes and transports them from the tarmac to a World Food Programme warehouse 1.5km away.
Non-government organisations (NGOs) will collect the supplies from the warehouse for distribution to survivors of the quake, which has killed more than 7,500 people.
But the DRT faces several challenges.
Mr Roger Loh, 54, a customer care advisor at DHL Express Singapore, said: "It's a very small airport. A small congestion can cause huge delays."
Another DRT member, Mr Noorazam Ibrahim, 48, the company's lead operations agent, estimated that it takes at least an hour to clear one plane's worth of cargo.
"There's a plane landing at the airport every hour," he said.
"This piles the pressure on us to clear the goods as fast as possible."
But inadequate equipment at the Kathmandu airport slows things down.
Mr Sobrielo said: "The airport has only one forklift and it breaks down twice a day."
Unsolicited goods donated by well-wishers also pose another huge obstacle to the group.
"These goods don't belong to any NGOs, so we don't know who to give them to," added Mr Sobrielo. "They probably come from people with good intentions, but they are just taking up space right now."
Mr Khairulnizam Massuan, leader of Singapore Red Cross' (SRC) Advance Team, shared a similar tale of logistics nightmare with TNP.
"It was quite a challenge to secure transportation because many drivers returned to their villages to check on their families," he said.
"Even if we had the drivers, many petrol kiosks have been damaged by the earthquake."
Red tape and bureaucracy further hinder relief operations.
The DRT said that although the Nepali customs has waived duty on relief goods entering the country, it hasn't waived the right to inspect those goods, causing a massive bottleneck on the ground.
Reuters reported on Tuesday that a row has broken out between Nepal and some international agencies over this.
Senior government officials said customs checks are necessary because they do not know what's coming into the country.
Supplies including goods that Nepal does not need and relief workers arriving without proper documents complicate aid efforts, said officials.
"Many donors are sending relief materials without even consulting us on what we need," said home ministry official Laxmi Prasad Dhakal.
Frustrated, some donors are circumventing the government and sending aid directly through non-governmental organisations for distribution, adding to disagreements, said an aide to Prime Minister Sushil Koirala.
"There are differences between the government and some donors over this," the aide said.
The DRT is expected to stay in Nepal for another week before returning to Singapore.
Nurse tends to 1 patient every 2 mins
In just seven hours into her 12-hour shift, nurse Joelle Yap had tended to 190 patients.
From a three-month-old baby to a 101-year-old man, Miss Yap has seen it all in the past three days.
The 42-year-old adjunct nursing lecturer at Nanyang Polytechnic is a member of Singapore Red Cross' (SRC) medical team in Nepal.
She has 20 years of humanitarian experience, having travelled to countries like East Timor, Thailand and India for relief work.
She told The New Paper over the phone, during a break after seven hours of work, that the pace of her job in Nepal is challenging. She averages about 1 patient every 2 minutes.
"I'm the only female medical personnel from SRC here, so I have to handle a lot of procedures like electrocardiograms or dressing changes for female patients," she said.
Every day, Miss Yap sees long lines of villagers, some of whom have travelled for hours just to get to SRC's "clinic" in Nuwakot district, around 80km north-west of Kathmandu.
The "clinic" is nothing more than temporary tents in a field, where from 7am to 7pm, Miss Yap, three doctors and a paramedic treats patients.
She told TNP: "It's a non-stop stream of people.
"Sometimes, we give up our breaks because we don't want to turn anybody away."
Even villagers who emerged unscathed from the April 25 earthquake have flocked to SRC's clinic for medical attention.
Miss Yap said: "It's rare to have doctors in the village, so a lot of them came here when they heard we were giving free check-ups.
"Many are suffering from chronic diseases like diabetes or hypertension."
For Miss Yap, who also runs the clinic's pharmacy, the biggest hurdle is the language barrier.
"When I dispense medicine, I have to give instructions about the dosage and it usually takes only five minutes. Here, I have to rely on the translator and it takes twice as long," she said.
But the gratitude of her Nepali patients transcends language.
Even though the medical check-ups are free, some have turned to non-monetary means to express their appreciation.
"A lady brought papayas from her home to thank us. They are very grateful for what we do here."
Miss Yap will be returning to Singapore in the next couple of days but it is not rest time for her yet. She is leaving for Japan on Sunday to run rehabilitative activities for the 2011 earthquake survivors in Iwate Prefecture, where 200,000 people still live in temporary shelters.
But the busy schedule is nothing to Miss Yap.
"I do what I do because it really makes a difference to these people."