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WFP Prepares Countries for Large-Scale Disasters, One Pandemic at a Time

Jean-Luc Kohler, left, of WFP Senegal, works with his fellow Senegal Task Force members during the Pandemic Readiness and Response Exercise, a crisis simulation held in Dakar, Senegal, from 18-22 July, 2011. (U.S. AFRICOM Photo by Col. Joseph Mancy) 

Pandemics and large-scale disasters pose specific challenges to humanitarian emergency operations, especially in urban areas. Through a recent one-week pandemic simulation, WFP aimed to prepare countries in West Africa to face these challenges so that they can better assist vulnerable populations.

DAKAR— In Dakar, Senegal, over 100 people from all over West Africa recently spent five days attending one of the largest exercises that WFP has ever carried out. They were taking part in the Pandemic Readiness and Response Exercise (P2RX), a crisis simulation led by WFP that aimed to prepare national governments and humanitarian actors to respond to the consequences of a severe influenza pandemic in urban environments.

During the five day exercise, held from 18-22 July, teams from Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal had to respond to the events of an evolving, simulated pandemic in the region’s urban centres in order to exercise coordination and decision-making processes.

“Pandemics know no boundaries, and no matter how well you plan within your country, you need your partners in the sub-region,” said Kofi Portuphy, National Coordinator of the National Disaster Management Organisation of Ghana and a P2RX participant. During the exercise, countries 'stress-tested' their existing response procedures and shared their experiences “to learn from each other how we have managed [these types of issues] in the past and how we can build on that for future readiness. In the ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] sub-region, we are fine-tuning our preparedness and beginning to network and build our capacities for future responses.”

As a severe pandemic will have consequences far beyond the health sector, the P2RX took a “Whole of Society” approach to include participants from the public, private, commercial and civil society sectors. Each team was comprised of representatives from government ministries, National Disaster Management Organisations, military/police, the Red Cross/Red Crescent and WFP (or the UN country team in the case of Nigeria).

The coordination between these varied but vital actors focused on several elements, all within the context of humanitarian operations in an urban environment: ensuring access to food and critical services for vulnerable populations; maintaining supply chains for food and logistics as well as emergency telecommunications; controlling information management; and handling communications and messaging.

However, the outcomes of the P2RX are not just limited to pandemic preparedness planning.

“Severe pandemics present us with a range of issues which are all quite particular in terms of disaster management,” said Peter Scott-Bowden, head of WFP’s pandemic response unit and the director of the P2RX. “80-90 percent of the pandemic exercise will strengthen other forms of preparedness for dealing with a range of disasters.”

In addition, the exercise also served to illustrate both strengths and gaps in current preparedness capabilities for future enhancement.

 “In Ghana, we are going to assess the [results of the exercise] so we can increase our response capabilities,” continued Mr. Portuphy.

Pandemic and disaster planning is especially important to WFP, as it is directly related to WFP’s mission to prevent hunger and to invest in preparedness and mitigation measures. In any large scale-disaster, WFP aims to maintain access to food for vulnerable populations and is responsible for the continuation of operations for the humanitarian community, including cluster coordination for logistics and telecommunications.

“We ourselves need to be prepared,” said Sheila Sisulu, WFP’s Deputy Executive Director for Hunger Solutions. The P2RX was useful “not only to prepare the countries to be ready [in the case of a large-scale disaster], but also to strengthen our own capacity to engage and to hit the ground running.”

WFP received support in the implementation of the P2RX from the Pandemic Response Program of U.S. Africa Command (U.S. Africom), whose expertise was essential to the success of the exercise.

 “We do have unique capabilities in certain militaries—communication, transportation, logistic support areas,” said Colonel Joseph Mancy of U.S. Africom. “They will be fully leveraged if we have to apply these different skill sets to this kind of global disaster.”

Indeed, as national militaries are increasingly used by governments to support humanitarian emergency operations, it is critical to maintain dialogue between them and their civilian counterparts.

“Identifying where militaries are needed, and where they are not, is key to maximizing the efficiencies of available resources and to getting assistance to those most in need,” said Vincent Anami, of Kenya's National Disaster Operations Centre. Mr. Anami, a participant in the first P2RX, held in Mombasa, Kenya, in 2010, acted as a subject matter expert at the exercise in Dakar.

The P2RX also benefited from the knowledge and experience of representatives from other countries and non-governmental and international organisations who acted as observers/advisors. These representatives came from Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Togo, ECOWAS, the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, UNICEF, the Italian Civil Protection Department and MSB (Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency). Donor support was provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Australian Agency for International Development.

The outcomes of the P2RX will also directly inform the efforts of the multi-agency Towards a Safer World (TASW) initiative, which seeks to assess achievements in pandemic planning efforts for replication in future disaster preparedness activities. More information about TASW can be found at http://www.towardsasaferworld.org/.