DePaul University Newsline > Sections > Ask an Expert > Supply chain researcher describes 'donation pollution' in Turkey after earthquake

Supply chain researcher describes 'donation pollution' in Turkey after earthquake

Nezih Altay leans on podium in a classroom giving a lecture
Nezih Altay, a scholar in humanitarian aid supply chains, describes the problem of "donation pollution" after disasters. (Photo courtesy of Nezih Altay)

During the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes in Turkey, essential supply chains were clogged with unsolicited items inappropriate for the emergency response, observed Nezih Altay, a DePaul professor and head of the M.S. in Supply Chain Management program in the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business. Altay, who is a scholar in humanitarian aid supply chains, calls this problem "donation pollution."

As a native of Turkey, Altay watched the devastation and rescue efforts unfold with special attention. He was inspired to study humanitarian relief after he survived the 1999 earthquake in Izmit, Turkey, which killed 17,000 people.

Donation pollution is not unique to Turkey, he says. And now, about a month after the latest earthquakes, is an opportune moment to discuss donation pollution and how to reduce it during the next global disaster. In this Q&A, Altay explains humanitarian supply chains and how people need to think about how they donate to support others in such times.

In your analysis, what qualifies as "donation pollution," and how does it harm disaster relief efforts?

After a disaster, people try to help in any way they can. It's human nature. However, they don't realize local community organizations, municipalities and nongovernmental organizations already have some programs running in the affected area to quickly assess the needs of the survivors and publicize what items are needed in which amounts.

If we as individuals, communities or companies decide to send what we think may be needed, we are simply flooding the system with unwanted items. When these items converge to the disaster zone from all over the country, sometimes the world, it slows the response. They need to be received, unloaded, sorted, stored and, if not needed, properly disposed. Piles and piles of unsolicited and inappropriate goods must sit somewhere because crews are busy saving lives.

Only after the recovery phase starts are these items either taken to landfills (because by this time they are covered with mold) or they are incinerated. Either way, they cost time, money and labor hours to the humanitarian organizations.

What can we learn from what happened in Turkey?

Unsolicited goods sent to the affected cities in Turkey showcased the typical problems of material convergence. First, truckloads of donations were rushed from all over the country to the disaster zone. Even though the affected area was as big as the country of Iceland, the transportation infrastructure was so severely destroyed that, in some towns, only one road was accessible. This resulted in traffic jams. One trucker mentioned that he waited on the road for seven hours, with several ambulances behind him, because nothing was moving. In this scenario, what do you think will save lives: the truck full of clothing or the ambulances?

Second, items were mostly unsolicited. That means they were not going to a specific humanitarian organization or community group that asked for specific items. Because there is no clear recipient for these truckloads of items, they first sit around until volunteer labor is available to sort through them. The truckers did not have time to wait for recipients so they literally dumped their load anywhere they could find and returned.

Third, items were not only unsolicited but also not appropriate. I have come across several videos recorded by volunteers showing nightgowns, high-heeled shoes, used clothing, shoes that were missing pairs and so on.

And lastly, these efforts were uncoordinated. As one town received only one type of aid, another town received nothing.

When disaster strikes, many people feel pulled to help. How can they help without contributing to problems like donation pollution?

I would recommend sending money, for three reasons.

One, money travels much faster than goods.

Two, money gives the aid organizations flexibility. In case of bad coordination, money can buy anything that is missing. But if we end up with beans in one town and rice in the other, we will have to spend more time and effort to move them to the need points.

Three, money helps revive the local economy that will be severely disrupted by the disaster. If you absolutely want to send physical goods (clothing or food), then the most important thing is finding out what is needed from a community group, NGO or local governmental organization, and sending only those solicited items. This way, only needed relief occupies the roads, and the goods would be received by an organization that can immediately distribute them to the people in need.

You're also working closely colleagues in Turkey to bring needed medical equipment to the affected cities. Tell me more about that effort.

The two large earthquakes that hit the region within the same day damaged several hospitals. And with millions of people displaced and less medical capacity now available, we need mobile hospitals. People usually think about the injured, but we need to remember there are many people with chronic diseases that need repeated care, like dialysis or chemotherapy.

We desperately need to increase the medical capacity of the area. A group of personal friends who are doctors in Turkey have identified two manufacturers of mobile outpatient clinics and dialysis units. These units are built into the trailer of an 18-wheeler truck and can be moved to any location where there is need. The units will be donated to the Turkish Ministry of Health, which will assign personnel to them and manage their daily operation.

The mobile outpatient clinic is around $300,000, and the dialysis unit is $390,000. So far, we were able to raise funds to purchase one of these outpatient clinics. Our hope is to send more of these mobile hospitals to the region. This could be an excellent Corporate Social Responsibility project for a company.

Mary Hansen is a manager of strategic communications in the University Marketing and Communications division.