FEATURE-Aid groups drive to curb deadly gas-guzzling cars


By Ruth Gidley

LONDON, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Aid workers in risky environments may fear violence but they are more likely to die -- and hurt the people they are trying to help -- in a car crash, logistics experts say.

These specialists are joining a growing initiative to make humanitarian groups more responsible with their gas-guzzling four-wheel-drive cars, which belch out fumes that pollute the local environment and make people sick.

Many agencies campaign on environmental issues, but few people in the aid world are watching fuel emissions of the 60,000 vehicles used in their industry, according to the initiative, called Fleet Forum.

"We're not just delivering aid, but killing the children we're trying to feed," said Rob De Jong, acting head of the Urban Environment Unit of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), one of about 40 groups involved in the initiative.

Aid agencies spend about $800 million a year on vehicles, but they could save $160 million annually -- and many lives -- by training staff in road safety and buying appropriate cars to higher environmental standards, the logistics specialists say.

"Pedestrians are more frequently killed than car users, and if a breadwinner dies that has a major impact," said George Fenton, a logistics expert with agency World Vision.

Rob McConnell, who coordinates Fleet Forum, said: "Crashes seem to be regarded as fate ... drivers aren't trained, accidents aren't recorded, steps aren't taken to prevent it from happening."

People working in risky environments are also less careful.

An aid worker who would automatically use a seatbelt at home in Denmark will rarely bother in Congo, even if the car is ploughing through knee-deep mud on a near-vertical hillside.

Another who would never trust a drunk driver in Canada will ride home from a party in Sri Lanka with a friend who cannot keep his eyes on the road.

"They're more irresponsible in the field," McConnell said. "You find more car crashes, more drug abuse, more sexually transmitted diseases. Standards of behaviour change."

Accidents are not just about bad driving. In many places where aid agencies work -- from the deserts of Darfur to mountaintop villages in Kashmir -- road surfaces are uneven and often unpaved.

But aid agency drivers have often not been behind the wheel of such powerful cars before, McConnell said.

"You give a guy a brand new Toyota Landcruiser, he'll drive like a lunatic," he said. "He feels like a big man. It's a sign of power."


Working with aid agencies, U.N. bodies, donors and commercial organisations that want to pass on their expertise, Fleet Forum aims to encourage aid groups also to be more efficient and use cleaner fuels.

Gas-guzzling cars, like the ubiquitous shiny white four-wheel-drive with an agency logo on the side, are the norm for aid workers even in cities, McConnell said.

"You'll see four different people from the same office going to the same meeting in four different vehicles," he said. "Practise what you preach. That's what we're bad at."

Pollution is a fact of urban life in the developing world, where legislation often lags behind industrial countries, UNEP's De Jong said.

Bad air quality contributes to approximately 3 million deaths a year, and is a major factor in lung disease, heart problems and asthma, according to the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, which includes U.N. bodies and aid agencies.

Lead emissions are especially harmful to children under six, it says, and yet most aid agencies do not make much effort to use lead-free fuel or fit catalytic converters.

Agencies do have to work within the constraints of their environments: "If leaded fuel is all you can get, you have to use it," De Jong said.

And he said it was hard to persuade agencies to buy cars with filters, which could cost $800 per vehicle -- a huge investment if an agency only uses the car for three years.

But if an agency passes the vehicle on to a local group at the end of a project, De Jong argued the initial layout would still be helping the environment 12 years on.

Fleet Forum's McConnell said agencies could save between 15 and 20 percent of costs by better management and maintenance.

But even though vehicles are the second-highest cost after staff for humanitarian organisations, it is hard to get agencies to listen.

"Road safety ain't sexy," McConnell said. "They'll spend packets looking at how aid workers are sexually exploiting people in refugee camps. Why isn't hitting people with cars as important?"

World Vision's Fenton thinks organisations are slowly getting the message, as top aid officials and government donors get involved.

"We've got to take something very abstract like climate change and turn it into something concrete," De Jong said. "You're trying to save lives but you're also polluting the air."

(Editing by Sara Ledwith;

For more information about emergency relief visit Reuters AlertNet http://www.alertnet.org email: alertnet@reuters.com; +44 207 542 5791)



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