In Part I of this series we sketched the outline of an imaginary emergency: A mountainous area in Central Asia had been hit by an earthquake causing major structural damage and significant loss of life. In our scenario the roads in the region were heavily damaged which limited access to the outside world and humanitarian relief efforts had kicked off with a massive airlift of relief items.
We predicted the humanitarian coordinator would lose nights of sleep, because of “the bucket issue". What do we mean by this?
Following our example, the international humanitarian community (i.e. governments, UN agencies and NGOs) were asked to donate relief items or funds to procure and ship the necessary items. Long lists of needed items were broadcast.
And here is where “the issue of the bucket” comes in:
One bucket is different from the next. You have 10 liter and 20 liter buckets; buckets with handles and buckets without; buckets with and without lids; buckets suited for hauling sand and buckets suited for hauling water; buckets for food and buckets used for sanitation purposes.
This might sound silly but it is not. It is a common issue with ALL relief items. A bucket is not a bucket, just as much as a car is not a car, and a crane is not a crane. It would not be the first time thin cotton tents arrived for an earthquake response in an area at an altitude of 1,500m in the winter. Nor would it be the first time that family tents were received when what were really needed were kitchen tents, hospital tents and school tents.
Just as the right tent can mean a difference between life and death for hundreds of thousands of people in our earthquake scenario, the right sanitation equipment is just as critical. Have you ever received water pumps but not the generators needed to power them? Perhaps you received the generators but quickly realized that they ran on petrol when only diesel was locally available? And, to top it all off, the generators you received produced 110 volts while the pumps required 220 volts?
In our scenario food storage buckets with lids were needed so that families could keep their flour away from rats and vermin. What was ultimately provided were 5 liter children potties all in orange which, of course, happens to be the colour of the local extremist rebel group.
Now do you understand what we are talking about? We’re talking about the standardization of relief items.
When an organisation talks about budget reference number XYZ we want to ensure other organisations know exactly what that organisation is talking about.
Until a short while ago the humanitarian community did not collaborate on standardization issues. We all had our own standards and our own specifications. How then, could we all respond to an emergency and ensure that we did not send twice as much of one item while sending half the required quantity of another?
This has now become easier. We have finally agreed upon a common definition for the term 'bucket'. In other words, we have standardized the nomenclature of relief items.
In Part III of this series we will describe the system we use to expand the nomenclature of relief items.