From Kathmandu, to Rome: a chat with Susan Pokharel on his logistics journey

When the Nepal earthquake of 2015 struck, Susan was sparked into humanitarian action. Now he's a cargo tracking officer in Rome.
13 July 2018
Helicopter landing near mountain in Nepal

Man crouches completing paperwork in an airfield


Susan Pokharel works as a support for Tracking Officers in the field for the Global Logistics Cluster in Rome, but his story as a humanitarian worker began in his home country of Nepal as Programme Officer for a local NGO supporting people affected by HIV.

With a postgraduate degree in Sociology, it is hard to see how he came to logistics, but after sharing a few words, it is clear he’s a loggie at heart.

So where did his interest in logistics begin? April 2015, Nepal earthquake. Seeing the devastation around him, and the way the people close to him were affected, Susan tells us how this sparked a real urge to do something, driving him into high-speed action.

What was it like to see the city you lived in devastated by the earthquake?

We were all expecting the earthquake to strike, but when it finally did, nothing could prepare me for what I saw. There was so much devastation. Electricity cut out, buildings crumbled down, blocking roads with rubble. The people were in total shock. I was in shock.

View of Deurali from a helicopter

How did the earthquake affect you?

I was really lucky to be honest. During that period, I was studying and working in Kathmandu undertaking my postgraduate studies in Sociology, but I had actually just left for a few days to go back to my hometown for a friend’s wedding. That’s when the earthquake struck. After seeing the wreckage on the television, I immediately wanted to go back to help. In response to the earthquake, the Logistics Cluster had just been activated and I immediately saw a meaningful opportunity to do just that. So I applied for a job as cargo tracking officer and I got it! They asked me to travel back to Kathmandu and I stayed there for a couple of weeks for training, before being posted to my duty station.

The post was in Deurali, a small town in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was the first time I had even been deployed by helicopter! The town was a central post from which vehicles were packed with aid and transported to the towns and villages affected by the earthquake. For the most remote places, high up in the Himalayas, we had to use helicopters.

Helicopter landing near mountain in Nepal

What was your main duty during these first two months with the Cluster?

My main duty was in transport and tracking cargo. Two really important parts of any logistics response.

When it comes to transport, we coordinated all the transport for different humanitarian agencies who wanted to deliver all kinds of items. Mattresses, lamps, buckets, ropes, dishes, tarpaulin… it was hugely diverse. To save the number of trips we had to make, all of the items had to be packed in such a way that it maximised container space. It was often quite complex – and you couldn’t let your guard down - because you had to make sure that shelter equipment reached those without a roof, and that the generator reached the town where there was no electricity, as quickly as possible. That’s what humanitarian logistics is all about - seems obvious but it’s important!

The other aspect that made the job challenging is how helicopter cargo packing arrangements work. Trucks have a set amount of transport capacity, but helicopters can change. The schedules are also highly dependent on weather, for example, if there are clouds and wind, the carrying capacity is weaker. So while on the day you have an expected amount, in the end the helicopter may not necessarily be able to meet it.

So now you’re in Rome, what’s the difference between Rome and the field?

Well, the main thing is that my job has changed.

In Nepal, I was working with the tracking software. It was my tool. Here in Rome, my role is to make sure that tool is always working properly for the logisticians on the ground, which is absolutely critical. Being in the field made me realise that we’re constantly taking for granted how much stuff we actually use in our daily lives. A disaster strikes, and suddenly from one day to the next, it’s all gone. Life becomes solely about survival.

Another big difference is team size. When you’re in the field, teams are smaller. Everyone knows each other personally. Speaking to different people, from different agencies who all have their own personal experiences and skills. I learned a lot from these people and I’m really grateful to have met them all, as it has also impacted how I approach work in Rome.