Be prepared? Coulsdon Scout caught in Korean jam(boree)

Flooded: the Scouts found their camp site under water when they arrived at the Jamboree at Saemangeum in South Korea. Pic: Kiera Ford

Tens of thousands of youngsters were put at serious risk by floods, a plague of insects, intense heat and an on-coming tropical storm at the latest World Scout Jamboree at Saemangeum. Here, PAUL FORD reports on the wretched experiences suffered by his daughter, Keira

On the opposite side of the world, on an enormous campsite, 43,000 Scouts drawn from across the world should be now enjoying the second week of the 25th World Scout Jamboree.

Instead, it’s over, with the threat of Tropical Storm Khanun and its projected 80mph winds the final straw for disaster-plagued event, which started badly and lurched from crisis to crisis before this knock-out blow.

My daughter, Kiera, is 18, and a volunteer member of the International Support Team for the Jamboree. The IST tends to be composed of older Scouts, often veterans of previous Jamborees. Kiera attended WSJ24 in the United States and Canada which, it must be said, ran like clockwork.

It’s the role of the IST to help out the participating Scout groups and their leaders in the day-to-day running of the event, performing numerous chores behind the scenes while the Scouts enjoy the activities.

All smiles: Keira Ford and her IST friends on arrival in Seoul. They did not realise what was awaiting them at the Jamboree

Kiera left London on July 25 and arrived in Seoul where she and her friends and colleagues enjoyed seeing the sights before moving to the Jamboree site at Saemangeum, near Buan.

It was clear from the start that things weren’t right. The site hadn’t recovered from flooding that had occurred a few weeks before as a result of the heaviest rainfall Korea had seen in more than a century. Vast areas were still underwater. Tents were erected on top of plastic pallets to raise them out of the water.

As Kiera and her team began to settle in, it became obvious that other facilities were not working as they should.

Toilets for those with mobility issues were in place but without ramped access, rendering them useless. The regular toilets had insufficient water supplies to allow them to work properly, if at all.

There was seemingly no grasp of basic nutritional needs. Those with special dietary requirements were not catered for, and even basic concepts ignored or overlooked.

Kiera’s lunch was often composed purely of confectionery, on one occasion receiving just two muffins and cookie. After complaining, it was supplemented by a packet of dried fruit.

Transport around the extensive site was unreliable, with long queues, while the bus service ended at 8pm, leaving members of the IST having to walk long distances in the intense heat to get back to their base. On one shift, Kiera started work at 4am and finished at 9pm, only to be faced with an hour’s walk back to her hot, damp tent back in Sub Camp 5.

Heatwave: with temperatures reaching 34 degrees, heatstroke was a common ailment for the young Scouts as they queued on the muddy, insect-infested Jamboree site

The heat was a particular problem. No one can blame the organisers for the heatwave, with temperatures hitting 34 degrees, but their response to the conditions was slow and the medical facilities quickly overrun.

Having been badly affected by insect bites on arrival to the point where she could barely walk, Kiera later succumbed to heatstroke and was granted just a half-hour nap in an air conditioned room before being moved on due the demand on the facilities. She ended up lying on a table in the staff hut to try to recover.

Feeling the heat: Chief Scout Bear Grylls at the Jamboree opening

At the Jamboree’s the grand opening event, there was Bear Grylls, drones, music, a light show. But Kiera couldn’t go. The IST were specifically instructed not to attend, as the arena was too small to accommodate everyone. It wasn’t even big enough to hold all the participating Scouts.

And when they tried to cram in as many as possible, a number collapsed because of the heat, exacerbated by the overcrowding.

On Wednesday the World Organisation of the Scout Movement issued an ultimatum, explaining in polite but forceful tone to the Korean government the practical measures that needed to be taken to address the many problems, including health, safety, sanitation, medical and food-related issues. These issues were to be resolved no later than 8pm on Thursday August 3.

But although a firm commitment was made by sundry officials and some changes effected, even with the South Korean Army being brought in, it wasn’t enough.

Paddling pool: the organisers never recovered from having their site flooded before Scouts began to arrive

The promised fleet of air-conditioned buses arrived to help provide respite from the high temperatures, only for Scouts to be told that you needed medical approval to use them.

Most of the activities scheduled had to be cancelled because of the continuing heatwave and lack of shade.

British Scout officials had expressed concerns about the suitability of the site before the Jamboree even began. They were assured any deficiencies would be addressed.

But just a few days in, they were convinced that the promised improvements were never going to happen and that staying at the site represented serious health and safety risk. At great cost, more than £1million, they made plans to leave. The United States and Singapore quickly followed suit.

For Kiera and the rest of the UK contingent, their Jamboree is effectively over, and they have been relocated to hotels in and around Seoul. Kiera is sharing a bedroom with five other girls. Her hotel is at Incheon, which is handy for the airport next door, but at 15 miles away from the city centre, not so good for access to Seoul itself. But it’s still a damn sight better than the Saemangeum site, and she now has a working shower, a mattress and respite from the heat.

Badly parked: the on-site conditions caught out the organisers

For the Scouts, a hastily arranged programme of activities has been put together, although it can never replace what was supposed to be the experience of a life time, the Jamboree, a unique opportunity to mingle with others from all sorts of countries and cultures, learn from and make friends. There were originally 158 countries to be represented, a remarkable thing (the United Nations has 193 member states).

As a parent, I’m grateful to the UK Scouts for pulling them out, but it’s with regrets. Both Kiera’s and mine.

And we’re lucky. We’re one of the richer countries that could afford to do it. Others are not so lucky. I’m also very sad for the Scouts and their parents and guardians who saved and raised money so they could go on this life-changing adventure only to have it so rudely spoiled by inadequate organisation and planning.

I sincerely hope that some kind of refund will be forthcoming, especially to those who sacrificed much to send their children there.

This omnishambles should never have occurred, and questions need to be asked of the Korean organisers and the oversight that the World Organisation surely had in place. The next Jamboree should occur in four years.

The lessons must be learned. “Be Prepared” the Scout motto says. Korea most certainly wasn’t.

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