For anyone involved in the emergency aid response to the Niger food crisis, there is one overriding thought: time is running out for many people in this West African country.
"Our absolute priority now is to catch up with the situation, using the emergency tools that we have," says Langdon Greenhalgh, head of the International Federation operation in Niger, and three other drought-hit countries, Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania. "The Red Cross is using resources developed with years and years of experience to act, and to act now."
A specialist disaster response team from the Federation arrived in the country two weeks ago, responding to a call for assistance from the Niger Red Cross. A seed distribution targeting 3,500 people was quickly set up to catch the end of the planting season and an emergency appeal for 18 million Swiss francs (€ 11.5 million, US$ 14 million) was launched on 22 July by the International Federation.
The Red Cross Red Crescent operation seeks to assist 222,000 of the most vulnerable people in the four countries for the next six months, through food, seed and fodder distributions, mobile feeding centres, community-based awareness programmes and bolstering livelihoods.
Estimates of the number of people now at risk in Niger vary between 2.5 and 3.5 million. But these are not numbers, these are lives. From a logistical perspective, it is a massive undertaking.
"This operation is a major challenge, given the size of the country, the fact that it's the rainy season, and all the other constraints that you would expect working in remote parts of western Africa," Greenhalgh says.
Among the first on the ground was a logistics Emergency Response Unit (ERU) from the British Red Cross. Several National Red Cross Societies have a roster of staff specialised in a particular field - logistics, telecommunications, water and sanitation, basic health care, relief distributions etc - ready to be deployed anywhere in the world at short notice.
Team members follow a well-rehearsed schedule, deployed in recent disasters including the Asian Tsunami and the earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam.
Equipment is packed, customs paperwork is processed, aircraft are booked. Then comes all the personal administration: insurance, visas and vaccinations.
"It pays to be prepared," says Neil Brown, 39, one of the team's five logisticians. "Every five minutes you spend before you get there is worth several hours in the field."
Staff at the British Red Cross international warehouse near Bristol loaded two Landcruisers with all the communications and administration equipment needed to set up a fully functional operational base in the Niger capital, Niamey. The vehicles were loaded onto an Antonov-12 plane at Bristol airport, and the operation was under way.
"What we have here is an extremely fluid situation," says Langdon. "To be honest, we're now in a race to see how fast the humanitarian community can get assistance up and running."
At the Niamey headquarters of the Niger Red Cross, the British team took over a conference room and rapidly set up satellite communications and an administrative centre. The whole Red Cross team met, gathering the British Red Cross, the French Red Cross, the Federation disaster team and local Niger staff.
"We didn't arrive in a black hole," says Neil Brown. "There have been people ahead of us making assessments. Combined with the preparations we've made, we now have the flexibility and the resources to adjust to the situation."
Plan of action
A plan has been formulated to set up four supplementary feeding centres in the worst-affected areas, targeting some 23,000 vulnerable children and their families. There has been good news from the World Food Programme. Over 4,000 tonnes of cereals, lentils and oils have arrived in country, so the Red Cross team has to be ready to distribute it.
One team headed out on Tuesday morning to Tahoua province, one of the worst affected areas in the country. Another left for Maradi on Wednesday. Extra staff, including logisticians, doctors and nutritionists, are arriving daily.
"I am proud to be part of this Movement and of what it can achieve," says Neil. "We have the skills to make a real difference here."