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Cambodian students travel on boats to school through floodwaters in Kandal province in October 2011. Tang Chhin Sothy/Afp

Keeping children safe from natural disasters

‘We often have problems with floods and strong winds in our school,” says 10-year-old Thorn Sonisa. “And then we have to go to the high building to be safe,” she adds, pointing to a large classroom on stilts at her primary school in Kampot town.

Cambodia is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to disasters, ranking ninth in the 2016 UN University World Risk Index and fourth in the most disaster-vulnerable countries in Asia. In recent times, the country has suffered from destructive flooding, drought, and strong winds in the same year causing loss of life, damage to infrastructure, and loss of people’s livelihoods.

Flooding is a common occurrence which affects schools across Cambodia. In late 2013, Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport (MoEYS) found that 1,280 schools were affected by floods.
Over 155 schools were suspended for one to nine weeks, preventing at least 50,000 children from starting class in 2013. The loss and damage in the education sector from floods in 2013 was estimated to cost $15 million.

The devastating impact that floods have on the education sector is a significant cause of increased dropout rates and deteriorated learning outcomes of students.

This week the international community – including a high-level delegation from Cambodia – is meeting in Cancun, Mexico, at the 2017 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction.

This marks the first opportunity for the international community, including Cambodia, to review our progress in keeping communities and children safe from disaster. Progress will be measured by the implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. Over 5,000 participants are expected.

The government of Cambodia has committed to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and is also one of Global Safe School Leaders signed up to World Initiative on Safe Schools. Global level discourse is critical to make people and schools around the world safer. However, these commitments now need to be turned into actions.

MoEYS of Cambodia has made a lot of progress to make schools safe. School safety is an important part of education strategic plans, and the government has developed guidelines to help school staff keep their schools safe and make sure children can continue their education without disruption.

Thorn Sonisa’s school is one of the schools in Kampot province to implement school safety guidelines. School Director Mok Chaleam highlights that the school built concrete pavements that replaced mud paths, new flood drains, and a building perched high on stilts to avoid floodwaters. This serves as the school’s “Safe Place”.

The Joint Action Group, which consists of international and local NGOs, is working together with MoEYS to reduce disaster risks in schools. Elizabeth Pearce, Save the Children Country Director of Cambodia, underscores the importance of engaging children. She says “Children are agents of change for their communities and should be engaged at a young age on how to reduce risks and stay safe when hazards strike.

They also can pass on these important messages to their families and communities. Keeping education safe from disasters is one of our main priorities, because every child has the right to an education which gives them a brighter future. We encourage the government to continue committing actions and resources that prevent disruptions to education and assure every Cambodian child universal access to a quality education”.

“Before I used to play and run with my friends under rain and lightning,” said Khoun Moniroth, a 10-year-old girl and grade 6 student of Meas Chum Primary School. “But now, I stopped running under the rain and find a safe place to stay far from the trees. I also share this knowledge to my friends and my family,” she added.

Paul Conrad of People in Need and Elizabeth Pearce of Save the Children are co-chairs of the Joint Action Group on Disaster Risk Reduction.

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