DPRK Red Cross prepares for disaster
The landscape in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is predominately mountainous. Wherever there is flatland, it is cultivated intensively. Valleys and foothills are studded with farming villages.
The economic setbacks of the past decade have resulted in a shortage of fuel and many commodities, forcing villagers to cut down trees to warm their houses and to cook.
Today, their fields are surrounded by hills denuded of vegetation. Without the tree roots to bind it, the soil is washed away with the rain. The hills look bleaker with every passing year.
To make matters worse, a vicious cycle of natural disasters has hit North Korea since 1995. Heavy rains have led to flash floods and landslides.
The government has reacted with various programmes such as river management, which includes reinforcing embankments, moving people from the areas most at risk, and tree planting.
Last March, the hills on the east coast were alive with young Red Cross volunteers planting tree seedlings, as part of a joint DPRK Red Cross and Norwegian Red Cross project. In two days, as many as 10,000 North Korean youths planted 300,000 tree seedlings donated by the Republic of Korea Red Cross.
But there is more planting to be done, and in any event, it will be at least ten years before the young trees have matured enough to be at their full potential for holding the soil and retaining moisture.
As with the tree planting, the DPRK Red Cross is working jointly with the government in the field of disaster management. "We have monthly meetings to discuss risk mapping, early warning systems, community-based training, increased public awareness and other response mechanisms," says the Vice-Chairman of the DPRK Red Cross branch in Kaesong, Jong Yon Chol.
To respond quickly to the needs of those affected by disaster, emergency relief items need to be readily available. The DPRK Red Cross has six warehouses strategically located in disaster-prone areas: one in the capital, Pyongyang, two on the west coast, two on the east coast, and one in the north.
Together, the warehouses can provide relief items - including kitchen sets, blankets, jerry cans, water purification tablets and large tents which can serve as first aid posts - to around 75,000 people, with plans to increase their capacity to assist 135,000 people.
The warehouse in Kaesong City is a large dry room, its walls lined with neatly stacked goods on sturdy shelves. A log sheet records how many items have been received, the date they were issued and the amount left. The warehouse keeper, Hwang Go Bun knows exactly what she has and what she will need.
"At present, I can help only 989 families with kitchen sets, and 1,102 with blankets. I need to make it up to 2,000 for both items to meet my minimum objective." She is concerned because she has lived through a number of emergency situations since the DPRK's first ever international appeal in 1995, when the country was hit by devastating floods.
A major drawback has been the delay between an appeal being launched and the arrival of the goods in the warehouse, often due to administrative delays. Furthermore, the import into and transportation within the country are unpredictable on account of fuel shortages and availability of vehicles. As a consequence, goods might be bogged down far from those who desperately need them when an emergency occurs.
The solution is adequate disaster preparedness. To do that, it is essential to secure the donations required to fill the DPRK Red Cross warehouses.
The DPRK Red Cross has been active since the birth of the country, and it is recognised by the population as a reliable and familiar support in times of disaster. We are a grassroots and national organization," says DRPK Red Cross Programme Coordinator Choe Jung Gang. "Unlike other international relief agencies, it has been here a long time, and it is here to stay."