BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Relief workers say enough food and supplies are coming in to meet the basic needs of earthquake and tsunami survivors here, yet many still go wanting.
Joni Aka Apong, who lost his wife and daughter in the disaster, arrived midafternoon Thursday at his local relief outpost, his eyes puffy from days of crying. But there was no water available to the 46-year-old man because the city's distribution center hadn't filled the order from the night before. Nor was there any rice; the village chiefs had handed out all 250 sacks for the day, some indiscriminately.
Two hours earlier, Rusli Hutasoit had departed from the same outpost on his motorbike with a big bag of rice and a 40-count box of instant chicken-flavored noodles. He shouldn't have. The 53-year-old carpenter said he had only himself to feed, and on the floor of his wooden house by the river was a nearly full 44-pound sack of rice and three boxes of noodles.
Hutasoit said a local leader had tipped him off to the free food. "If he didn't suggest it, I would have gone to the market to buy it. I still have money."
Although food and supplies are reaching the Sumatran city of Banda Aceh, where an estimated 30,000 people lost their lives and thousands of others were displaced, getting it into the hands of the needy remains a major challenge. One reason is that the Dec. 26 quake and tsunami disabled administrative services, staff and infrastructure. But it's also because the distribution system is based on a complex hierarchical structure that is difficult to coordinate and easy to abuse.
At the top of the organizational chart is Banda Aceh's municipal relief center, which acts as a clearinghouse for food and supplies trucked in from the city's air force base or directly from relief agencies.
Nine sub-districts in the city place orders to the center for rice and other food based on head counts provided by 89 leaders of villages. These chiefs distribute the supplies to individuals and representatives of hundreds of poskos, or centers, which hand out the goods to people living in camps or at their homes.
There is little tracking of inventory and sparse record keeping or verification. Overlap and duplication are rampant. Individuals or groups often use personal contacts to gain advantage. And transportation and supply issues are everywhere.
Since Friday, Australian soldiers have been distributing large containers of treated water -- at the moment, as many as 1,500 bottles a day.
They could easily dispense triple that number if they had more water bottles. Stacks of 10-liter containers were flown in from Germany and are sitting at a base in Medan, another city on the island of Sumatra, but nobody knows when they will arrive in Banda Aceh.
Scheduling flights between Banda Aceh and its two supply stations, Medan and the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, has also been a struggle because of the limited runway capacity of the small airports. Lack of coordination has been a recurring problem in the delivery of aid and services, and it surfaced again Thursday.
United Nations aid officials had wanted to airlift doctors to remote areas of western Sumatra, where thousands of villagers are believed to be at great risk. Health specialists have become increasingly concerned about an outbreak of diseases such as cholera and malaria in isolated areas where the quake and tsunami damage is known to be extensive. But the Indonesian military said such a flight out was not possible Thursday without proper paperwork, given that it had not been scheduled the night before.
Michael Elmquist, head of the U.N.'s humanitarian affairs office in Indonesia, said he had talked with the U.S. military about using its aircraft for the medical assessment mission but was told that the U.N. had to go through the Indonesians. "Yes, I do feel a bit frustrated about that," Elmquist said.
Indonesian Major Gen. Bambang Dharmono, who is in charge of the Indonesian military's part of the relief efforts, reacted defensively, suggesting that the U.N. should have known about the procedure. "There are limitations on the number of helicopters, so everything must be on a plan," he said.
It's been no less frustrating for those on the front lines of food distribution in Banda Aceh.
Interviews in the last two days in 10 camps, housing anywhere from 25 to 3,500 people, showed that many had inadequate provisions.
"Today we don't have rice or noodles," said Adi Data, deputy coordinator of the Posko Keckuta Alam relief camp. The reason, he said, was that the sub-district had no truck to deliver the food to the camp, set up to serve 553 refugees on the grounds of the provincial parliament building.
Adi Data works under a blue canopy where he sits on a wooden bench behind a tiny metal table. He created a walled storage house using doors that broke off during the quake, but there was nothing in it except an orange tarp. "No lunch today," he said.