Pinpoint Accuracy: Delivering Relief in Kosovo

International Rescue Committee adopts GIS to speed aid to returning refugees.

by / October 31, 1999
According to the United Nations high commissioner for refu-gees, a quarter of all the homes in Kosovo were destroyed during the conflict. Now, with the cessation of hostilities, international relief agencies are struggling to provide tens of thousands of returning refugees with shelter, food, water and sanitation. At the beginning of August, more than 75,000 people displaced during the fighting are still without basic shelter and infrastructure. More are returning all the time and with the onset of winter not far off, the need for shelter takes on a new urgency.

Agency Faces Mammoth Task

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of nearly 200 nonprofit relief agencies, or nongovernmental organizations (NGO), operating in Kosovo, has provided food distribution, shelter, water and sanitation assistance in every refugee crisis since the exodus from Nazi Germany in 1933. With the cessation of hostilities, IRC field teams are once again in Kosovo, assessing infrastructure damage and shelter-repair needs, providing building materials and expertise, repairing and decontaminating water systems, and operating mobile health clinics. Given the nearly 2,000 villages in Kosovo, the task is enormous, even with 200 NGOs on the scene.

Technology to Expedite Operations

To expedite aid to refugees, the IRC is developing geographic information system (GIS) databases and a data-communications network. According to IRC's GIS consultant, Philip Chinnici, the technology will enable the organization to more effectively visualize and track areas of shelter and infrastructure repairs, expedite delivery of building materials and basic household supplies and organize medical records. Field teams are already beginning to collect data needed to rebuild databases that were lost or destroyed when they were forced to evacuate Kosovo in March. But, Chinnici said field teams must wait until the Kosovo International Peace Implementation Force (KFOR) declares a village safe before they can go in. "Right now, security is very intense because of unexploded ordnance; finding and clearing land mines and booby traps is a slow process."

In March, the organization moved its field headquarters to Skopje, Macedonia, and toward the end of May, requested permission from NATO, and from Belgrade via the Swiss Embassy, to make airdrops of food packages to refugees hiding in the forests and mountains of Kosovo. IRC Vice President of Overseas Programs Barbara Smith said Belgrade did not respond. "But NATO allowed us fly between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. in specified air corridors. Apart from that, they refused all assistance save an agreement not to shoot the plane down, if we got in and out on time. The pilots had little time for more than one pass over the drop zones." Smith added that the IRC used GIS to calculate the exact locations of the drops, and had the plane painted white with orange stripes to ensure recognition from both sides. "Despite the critical navigation and timing, all the food packages went into the drop zones."

In Macedonia, Chinnici established an information department and began developing a wide area network (WAN) that will eventually link Skopje and IRC field offices in Kosovo. He also trained a local GIS staff to digitize hard-copy data collected during the first three months of the GIS operation. Those already familiar with Windows are building databases with Microsoft Access. When the GIS unit returns to Pristina, one of its first priorities will be to train a local GIS trainer. Data-entry clerks and advanced GIS people will be needed there to begin processing data collected by field teams.

Return to Kosovo

Two days after NATO troops entered Kosovo, IRC Water and Sanitation Coordinator Roy Brennen followed with an eight-member team to reopen field offices and resupply warehouses and shops looted by Serb forces in Pristina, Prizren, Peja and Gnjilane. Despite the need to complete these tasks and get into the villages before the onset of winter, the teams will have to wait for KFOR clearance. "Security is a major concern," Brennen said. "When we arrived in Pristina, almost no one was on the streets. In the first week, NATO was reporting 16 land-mine strikes [civilian casualties] a day. It is now around five a day -- still a big concern, especially in areas that haven't been cleared by NATO." Brennen said an IRC vehicle was shot at in Gnjilane, but no one was hit. "Today," he said in July, "in the same area, two American soldiers were killed by snipers. We don't know if the shots came from Serbs or Albanians." Another concern is revenge attacks by returning Albanians against Serbs and Gypsies. "Many houses are burning. When NGOs and 'ex-pats' rent apartments from Serbs, they put stickers and other signs in the windows so people will know that non-Serb occupants are living there."

Field Operations

Once KFOR has declared a village safe, IRC shelter teams made up of an ex-pat, an interpreter and driver locate area representatives of the Mother Teresa Society or community leaders, and arrange for them to survey the village infrastructure using an IRC shelter form. "We show them how to do the survey and fill out the form. We go through the village with them, pointing out structural damage to houses on a scale of one to five, one being undamaged and five totally destroyed. Category three would have some structural damage, perhaps broken windows, but with an intact roof. People can go through the winter in a category-three house. They may be without internal [running] water, but have a community well within one-half kilometer. Where we have an initial assessment of the total number of houses in a village, either from satellite imagery or from maps provided by NIMA [National Imagery and Mapping Agency, a U.S. agency formerly known as the Defense Mapping Agency], we go through and map the total infrastructure and the percentage of destruction in that village."

The shelter team returns in three to four days with a coordinator and confers with village leaders on needs ranging from stoves and cooking supplies to plumbing materials, doors, windows, plastic sheeting and roof-support beams. The coordinator then arranges for delivery of supplies and building materials from IRC warehouses in Kosovo. Chinnici said the IRC provides only materials and advice; villagers do the rebuilding. "The IRC encourages independence and self-help in rebuilding communities." As GIS databases are developed from field-survey data, IRC supervisors will be able to quickly "see" where and what type of materials and supplies are most needed and expedite the process of delivering them.

Before the conflict, 42 percent of the population had running water in their homes, and 56 percent, mainly rural, drew water from individual or community wells, according to the IRC. During the war, water systems were often contaminated by garbage and gasoline. As villages were burned and looted by Serb forces, many displaced families fled to communities not yet touched by the conflict, straining water and sanitation facilities in those areas. Even before the bombing began, IRC medical teams were reporting more than half the people they saw were suffering from water-borne diseases, mainly shigellea, rod-shaped bacteria that causes dysentery.

IRC water and sanitation teams go into the villages, survey the conditions of streams, wells and indoor plumbing, assess the need for pipes, take water samples for analysis, geocode the locations of wells using Garmin GPS units, and conduct basic hygiene training. "Sanitation throughout most rural villages is appalling," Brennen said. "In many instances, wells just haven't been maintained; we are treating those with chemicals. In a few cases, bodies of people and animals have been thrown into wells. Removing them, cleaning the well and treating the water is a usually a two-day process." Contrary to media reports, Brennen says there is no evidence of wells having been poisoned. "Contaminated, yes, but not poisoned."

Brennen said that in Zambia, the IRC had geocoded all water wells in the country and built an informational database on the number and capacity of wells, types of pumps and the parts needed for them. "We could look at that data on a map and plot the well-to-person ratio, mainly to target where intervention was needed most. We are using the data we collect here to set up the same type of GIS database."

Even though time is getting short, aid in the form of damage assessment, building materials, supplies and water-sanitation efforts must wait until land mines and other unexploded ordnance have been cleared. Chinnici said that as of August, KFOR had made 200 villages safe to enter. "It's a very slow process. If we can get into the remaining villages, spend two to three hours in each one, assess the condition of the infrastructure, we will have a way to prioritize the most damaged areas and know who will have the greatest need for the winter ahead."

Bill McGarigle is a writer, specializing in communications and information technology. He is based in Santa Cruz, Calif.