Responding to an emergency — in an emergency

By Chris Hufstader
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Villagers affected by cyclone Amphan in Bangladesh collect safe drinking water from Shushilan, an organization that works with Oxfam in Bangladesh. Shushilan began distributing water just 24 hours after the storm passed through the area. Fabeha Monir / Oxfam

When you’re in a pandemic, what do you do when another crisis hits? Oxfam partners with local experts for the fastest and most efficient ways to help people.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world in March 2020, Oxfam bolstered its ongoing programs to make them safe, while shifting limited resources to meet additional needs and added expenses. But what happens when there’s a crisis on top of a crisis — conflict, hurricanes, floods, or locusts?

The COVID-19 crisis has underscored the importance of something we already knew: Investing in local partner organizations can save lives in emergencies. When disasters strike, local organizations can respond quickly and effectively, thanks to the knowledge these organizations bring to the task. Oxfam helps ensure they have the technical expertise and funding they need to get the job done.

Here are just a few examples.

Cyclone in the Bay of Bengal

Last May, cyclone Amphan blasted north and east up the Bay of Bengal, along the coast of India and into Bangladesh. Oxfam responded in both countries with assistance for people along the coast who had to evacuate their homes in the middle of the pandemic.

As Amphan approached Bangladesh, Oxfam’s partner Shushilan set to work disinfecting cyclone shelters, and when families arrived, Shushilan distributed soap and hand sanitizer to them and made sure everyone knew the importance of wearing masks.

The cyclone pounded the coast, leaving in its wake floods and massive damage to homes. One of the most life-threatening outcomes: Water supplies were contaminated with salt. But within a day of the storm, Shushilan was able to begin distributing clean drinking water to affected communities.

Shushilan and Oxfam have worked together since 2010. “Oxfam taught us about how to provide water and sanitation in emergencies, and how to promote safe hygiene,” says Shushilan Director Mostafa Nuruzzaman. Now, Shushilan is working in the crowded Rohingya refugee camps, in charge of providing water and sanitation, and promoting safe hygiene for more than 28,000 people.

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During 2020 and early 2021, Oxfam responded to emergencies in these countries while also assisting people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Sandra Stowe / Oxfam America

Explosion in Beirut

On August 4, a warehouse storing ammonium nitrate exploded in the Lebanese port of Beirut. In the blink of an eye, the homes of 30,000 people were destroyed, and 200 people died. Thousands of businesses near the port were severely damaged. The costs of rebuilding soared: New windows and doors became unaffordable for most people as the explosion worsened the financial crisis in Lebanon.

To lead its response, Oxfam immediately turned to well-known civil society groups in Beirut, including Samidoun, which supervised repairs to homes and deployed a team of civil engineers to ensure the work was handled properly.

Bahjat al-Sheikh Mousa, 70, who lives in a building repaired by Samidoun volunteers, says he was grateful for the assistance, because “our government didn’t even bother to check on the affected people.”

Oxfam is working with 11 organizations in Beirut to distribute food and cash, and to provide psychosocial support, particularly to women survivors of domestic violence. Oxfam’s partners assisted 9,000 people within six months of the explosion.

Locusts in Kenya

When COVID-19 threatened Kenya last March, the impact on the arid northern part of the country was severe as people were recovering from a long drought. Then desert locusts invaded the grasslands and farms, and the situation became more dire. The locusts ate everything in their path, according to Ahmed Abdi, director of Arid Lands Development Focus (ALDEF), Oxfam’s partner in the region.

ALDEF staff quickly organized 300 community monitors and gave them smartphones with a mobile app to record locust activity and report it to the government so officials could call in aircraft to spray pesticides. “Communities are the ones who know where the locusts are; government agencies can’t be everywhere,” says Abdi.

In the meantime, Oxfam, ALDEF, and other groups distributed cash (between $30 and $48 per family per month for two months) to 8,000 people in the northern arid areas, to help farmers and livestock herders buy food, soap, and other crucial items they need to survive the pandemic.

Includes reporting by Elizabeth Stevens (Bangladesh) and Kelsey-Rae Taylor (Kenya).

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