How emergency supplies are collected and despatched from the UNHRD-WFP's largest hub in Dubai. Gulf News

Dubai: From the outside, the United Nations Humanitarian Response Depot (UNHRD)/World Food Programme (WFP) facility at the International Humanitarian City (IHC) in Dubai looks nothing out of the ordinary. A row of sheds and buildings covering a large expanse – 16,500 square metres to be precise - with an additional office space of 2,880 square metres.

Step inside one of the buildings, and you will still get the same feeling perhaps. Barring two glass partitioned cabins that stand on the far right, there is little else that draws your attention.

But it turns out there is a double door on the extreme left. And it is the gateway to all the action.

Over 60 per cent of the emergency relief operations of the UNHRD, which is managed by WFP, is done through Dubai.

- Walid Ibrahim, UNHRD Network Coordinator, UN World Food Programme

The warehouse which the door opens into is the UN agencies’ largest hub in the world, in terms of emergency aid operations.

“Over 60 per cent of the emergency relief operations of the UNHRD, which is managed by WFP, is done through Dubai,” Walid Ibrahim, UNHRD Network Coordinator, UN World Food Programme, tells Gulf News on an exclusive tour of the facility.

Dubai is the hub of the UNHRD, the other hubs being located at Panama City in Panama, Las Palmas in Spain, Accra in Ghana, Brindisi in Italy, and Kaula Lumpur in Malaysia.

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Boxes of relief supplies being loaded on to trucks at the UNHRD-WFP warehouse in Dubai. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Ibrahim reveals that in 2022, the UNHRD Dubai hub provided support through 395 shipments of aid and relief cargo to 94 countries on behalf of 26 humanitarian partners.

“The shipments of emergency supplies covered logistics, nutrition, health, emergency shelter, blankets, jerry cans, tents, stoves, staff supplies and wash and emergency telecoms. We also provided prefabricated offices, mobile storage units, warehouses, generators and other infrastructure-related camp management units. They were worth a stock value of more than $58 million,” he points out.

The emeregency relief shipments sent by the UNHRD-WFP Dubai hub in 2022 were worth $58 million. Image Credit: Vijith Pullikal/Gulf News

The Dubai hub was set up in 2008 for a reason.

Criteria for selecting Dubai

As Ibrahim says, “We needed a base here in the region. Our criteria for selecting a hub are stringent and based on logic as the hub typically requires to be close to the emergency theatres but not affected by them. It made sense for us to zero in on Dubai as it is a logistics gateway to the world. Moreover, the UAE is a stable country and the synergy between the UN and UAE is exemplary. The Government is engaged in and has invested heavily in giving back.”

He says, “Dubai immediately welcomed us to set up our base at the International Humanitarian City (IHC). It has provided us all support, including the necessary space for free and ready access to a range of services. As such, we are in a position to respond to any emergency crisis in the region in the fastest and most cost-effective and efficient manner. IHC is also a strategic operational partner by providing in-kind contributions in the form of air transport.”

The Dubai International Humanitarian City (IHC)
International Humanitarian City in Dubai. Image Credit: WAM

Back to the double door, Ibrahim pushes it open and leads us into the warehouse which is otherwise strictly restricted to authorised personnel.

There are five high-ceiling spaces in this particular cluster, which includes a temperature-controlled area of 3,360 square metres, a cold room of 125 square metres and 5,000 square metres of open storage. We walk past rows and rows of cartons, of different shapes and sizes, all neatly stockpiled on racks and meticulously labelled for onward dispatch.

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Emergency relief items stockpiled on racks await dispatch at the UNHRD-WFP warehouse. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

“We don’t do any of the packaging here,” says Ibrahim. Incoming stocks arrive pre-packaged in a manner suitable for rapid dispatch. When the items delivered are not in line with the requirements, an inspection report that is generated will address the concerns.

Once the goods are inspected, they are immediately allocated to the appropriate storage location and aligned with data in the Warehouse Management System. The items are placed in appropriate spaces, be it dry storage, cold chain storage, special storage or the like.

Sudan is one of the emergency theatres that UNHRD-WFP hub in Dubai is currently catering to. Image Credit: Vijith Pullikal/Gulf News

Stringent specifications

The goods, which are procured from the partners reach the warehouse in pre-packed cartons that meet the stipulated standards and specifications. The idea is to save time and effort as emergency relief needs to be rushed to crisis areas in minimal time.

As we come to one of the temperature-controlled areas, Ibrahim tells us that the boxes behind us consist of high-energy biscuits, perhaps one of the only food items that currently get sent to emergency operations from Dubai.

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Walid Ibrahim checking out the high-energy biscuit consignments stored in a temperature-controlled area. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Specially formulated to provide adequate nutrition for those in emergency areas, these biscuits with a mix of essential ingredients also allow for efficient storage over a longer period of time.

“We have just sent one full shipment of 55mt of these biscuits by sea to WFP Kenya, to be re-prepositioned for possible influx of people fleeing from Sudan,” says Ibrahim.

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The UNHRD-WFP warehouse has a staff strength of 130 people who are on the ready to respond to any emergency. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

He then explains how the Dubai hub caters to both an ‘onset emergency’ like that in Sudan or Turkey when the earthquake struck, and a ‘protracted emergency’ like that in Kenya, Somalia or Ethiopia, to name a few.

“Since May 9 this year, we have sent three full flights to Sudan, delivering 87.4 metric tonnes of shelter items, support equipment, medical items and health kits on behalf of WFP, UNICEF, UNFPA, IFRC and MSF with transport costs covered by the European Commission’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations. We have also despatched a shipment of tents and other equipment by sea to UNDP Sudan,” he adds.

Quickest possible time

Typically, once a batch of relief supplies is ready, it is unloaded from the stockpile racks and loaded onto waiting trucks at the back of the warehouses. The trucks then make their way to the airport or seaport with the boxes being checked in as cargo on flights or ships to stipulated destinations.

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A truck waiting for emergency aid items to be loaded at the UNHRD-WFP warehouse. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

“This must all be done in the quickest possible time. Our supplies to Sudan for instance reach within three-four hours by plane,” shares Ibrahim.

So just how equipped is Ibrahim to meet these requirements?

UNHRD-WFP hub at a glance. Image Credit: Vijith Pullikal/Gulf News

“We have a team of more than 130 people from the WFP, including 30 people from the UNHRD here. We have well-defined protocols which we follow,” he says.

Ask him how he feels to be in the thick of the action, and pat comes the reply.

“Not taking away from what others do in other kinds of jobs, there is an element of immense pride when you know something you do will directly impact someone. This is more so when you are working in the field at an emergency operation,” says Ibrahim, who first joined the WFP as an intern in Rome 20 years ago.