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Back to basics: disaster risk reduction starts in schools

Back to basics: disaster risk reduction starts in schools


UN Special Representative on Disaster Risk and Management Margareta Wahlstrom discusses how low-cost investment in DRR saves lives and livelihood.

Q: Studies of disaster trends and the likely consequences of climate change suggest that each year some 100 million children and young people are likely to be affected by natural hazard-related disasters. What practical and low-cost steps can be made to reduce these figures in countries like Cambodia where barriers to development, including a lack of resources and capacity, are immense? 

Investing in education and awareness by introducing children and teachers to knowledge about risks and how to avoid and reduce the impact of disasters, is probably the best and most cost-effective disaster risk reduction measure that can be put in place by governments. Such measures already benefit millions of children worldwide. In many countries such as Japan, France and Cuba governments have integrated disaster risk reduction knowledge into the school curriculum. This simple measure has helped saving the lives of thousands of children. You have no doubt followed how many thousands of well-prepared Japanese school children saved their own and other children’s lives in the tsunami disaster this year. You have probably heard about Tilly Smith, a young English school girl who learned about tsunamis in her geography class before going to Phuket with her family on Christmas vacation. Thanks to that geography lesson she was able to save the lives of hundreds of people in her beach-side hotel when the Indian Ocean tsunami came in December 2004. These are just a few among many examples of how education, training and awareness can help to save lives. Making disaster risk reduction part of the school curriculum is the most effective way of teaching children and building disaster resilient communities for the future.

Q: The Children’s Charter contains a five-point action plan for child-centered disaster risk reduction. What can be done to move this from a noble gesture into an effective intervention?

The Children’s Charter is an action plan for disaster risk reduction for children by children. It was developed through consultations with more than 600 children in 21 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Children from Cambodia were included in the interviews conducted by Save the Children. It was presented at the Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva in May 2011 and identifies five key priorities for a child-centred approach to disaster risk reduction which will not only better protect children in disasters but also empower them to reduce the impacts of disasters in their own communities. Children are just as much a part of the community as anyone else and are ready to take responsibility to keep their communities safer. But all too often, children are ignored and their views are not considered. This must change. Education is essential to save children’s lives in disasters. There are other important issues such as the safety of the school buildings. Some 2,000 schools in Cambodia remained closed after the current monsoon floods. In Thailand, a total of 3,288 educational institutes have been damaged by floods.

It is common to use schools as relief centres after disasters. This means that the schools are closed and children’s education is interrupted for sometimes very long periods. This is very damaging for their future life prospects. Some children will have their studies interrupted months after the floods; others will drop out for ever. In this year’s flooding in Southeast Asia, children have made up around a quarter of the nearly 800 deaths caused by flooding since July across Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines. Children do not need to die in floods; at the very least they must be taught how to swim so if they do fall into the floodwaters they have a chance to survive. The charter is not a piece of paper only. It is a valid plan of action that needs to be implemented. As we can see by the engagement in the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction’s One Million Safe Schools and Hospitals campaign, many governments are serious about it. Many national and local governments have pledged to make their schools safer and are already assessing their school buildings for safety and improving them. This is a big project that will take time. The important thing is that it has started.

Q: The charter calls for safer schools, but in rural Cambodia schools lack teachers and basic supplies. When an entire educational system is in need of an infusion of resources to meet the most basic needs of students, is there a danger of distorting the development of the educational system by focusing on one criterion?

If you don’t have safe schools, then you lack the foundation for building a strong education system. Making schools safe and ensuring that education is not interrupted by natural hazards depends on making the best use of available resources through good planning, safe locations, the quality of building materials and the quality of the teachers.

The majority of children feel completely cut off from any information regarding disasters so there is a great opportunity for the school system in Cambodia to incorporate disaster preparedness and prevention in the school curriculum as the country strives to achieve the Millennium Development Goal on education.

A simple school can be built in a safe location – away from risk of flooding – and with safe building methods. This is doubly important as many schools are used as community  buildings as well.  Teacher training also needs to include preparedness and prevention training in order to support children and their parents.

There is much that can be done even with limited resources. The understanding and the will to provide leadership on protecting development investments and a community’s young people is an important political commitment.

Q: Climate change mitigation and preparedness plans have been included in development programs implemented by NGOs for several years now, often at the requirement of the donors who fund the programs, but has monitoring and evaluation of these programs been robust enough?

It is excellent that many NGOs are taking this area of work very seriously. Reducing disaster risk and contributing to adaptation to climate change are critical to safeguard the development investments that countries and communities are making. 

It is only in the last five years or so that the integration of disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation has really started to happen and this trend should be encouraged as they have so much in common.  Both governments and NGOs are still learning how to be fully effective when it comes to integration.

To be able to measure results, it is important that a baseline is agreed both on what is the starting point and what you want to achieve. Only then will a monitoring system be fully robust. When it comes to understanding the extent of a country’s risk and doing proper cost-benefit analysis on risk reduction measures, it is important to have in place a national disaster loss database. About 40 countries around the world now have these in place and UNISDR is currently working in the region with the Philippines to develop a new one.

Program monitoring is being done to determine results and impacts and also to document learning on effective ways to save lives, preserve development gains and to protect the economic assets of a country and a community. Every disaster risk reduction investment pays back.  There is already a large body of documented studies on the cost- benefit of disaster risk reduction, and on climate adaptation measures.

The evidence exists, the methodologies need to spread faster and learning exchanges between Governments, NGOs and other partners is critical to match the increase in disaster risk and climate impact.

Q: This year’s flooding overwhelmed disaster risk reduction plans in villages where such plans had been implemented by government agencies and NGOs. Is there a need for an assessment to compare villages with DRR plans against those who lacked them to determine the value of existing DRR plans? What research has been conducted to date on the effectiveness of DRR plans at the village level?

Comparing disaster impacts on villages with DRR plans against those without such plans, is a good way to demonstrate the effectiveness of DRR planning. At the most basic level, knowledge, information, skills training and early warning systems can make an enormous difference in any given disaster situation. Highlighting this through the media and other channels would motivate more villages and provinces to adopt already tried and tested methods to reduce the impact of disasters.

There are plenty of studies on villages and communities in Asia and elsewhere, which demonstrate that prevention pays. These are easy to share.  And I believe much work can be done in a very practical way to engage communities and their own traditional knowledge, to ensure better protection of their assets and lives.

Q: A recent analysis by academics at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore suggested that more engagement between policymakers in the region and scientists is necessary, and that NGOs should seek partners in the private sector for implementing DRR and CC adaptation programs. Do you agree with this?

Absolutely, disaster risk reduction is everyone’s business. All of society needs to contribute to collective efforts and to ensure that they have done all they can to keep their own area of work safe.  This involves the expertise and actions of many players. Science and technology have always been important in our work. Both governments and civil society can make much better use of the available science and technology. The challenge is often that governments and political leaders need to have clear options as a basis for their decisions. They need to understand the financial, social and political implications of a proposed decision and hence not only science is important but also economic and other considerations.

Policymakers in the region now have at their disposal the Summary for Policymakers which was agreed earlier this month by member governments of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. The document is a summary of the IPCC Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation which was first proposed three years ago by Norway and UNISDR. For the first time the Special Report integrates expertise in disaster risk management with climate science and provides information on the different development pathways which can make us more or less vulnerable to extreme events and how we can become more resilient by better managing current and future risks related to extreme weather and climate events.

This learning needs to be applied by us all, including NGOs and the private sector. There needs to be close cooperation between all sectors of society to implement practical, effective measures to reduce vulnerability and exposure. Key areas to look at include “low regrets” measures such as early warning systems; changes in land use planning; sustainable land and ecosystem management; improvements in health surveillance, water supplies, and drainage systems; development and enforcement of building codes; and better education and awareness.

We cannot emphasise enough how important the private sector is to reducing the impacts of disasters. As we have seen in Thailand, more than 1,000 factories have been affected by flooding putting thousands of workers temporarily out of work and threatening the economic well-being of their communities.

Q: This year’s flooding underscored the need for early detection systems. What low-cost systems can be implemented in Cambodia and the region? What moves are being made to do this?

Bangladesh provides a good example of what Cambodia can do. Over the last 40 years Bangladesh has established good early warning systems based on reliable meteorological services and community participation. Early warning on risk for floods or storms or cyclones are sent to local authorities 72 to 48 hours before they happen and disseminated to remote areas through loudspeakers, bell ringing or through community leaders who go from one village to another to inform people about the risks of flooding. After years of investment in education and preparedness people know what to do when they hear these warnings. One obvious result is a considerable reduction in the numbers of people who lose their lives during the cyclone season.

Cambodia can learn from the example of Bangladesh but there are other factors to consider apart from the weather. Floods are caused by human decisions, the location of towns and cities, agriculture practices, water management practices and engineering works. So while early warning helps to save lives and some assets, it will not prevent floods from happening. Early warning is important but it is more important to consider land use planning and risk management for towns and villages, and to know and understand that development itself actually creates new risks. The best form of risk reduction is to consider, when doing development plans, how to build in the risk reduction and prevention from the start.

Q: Why is it important to engage children in early warning systems? How can they be made aware of risks in ways that do not cause them undue stress and worry?   

Children are often the last to be warned against disasters when their parents are already busy managing an emergency situation and trying to save their house or livelihoods. This is why it is so important for children to know what to do in critical situations. They need to participate in early warning and preparedness exercises so they will know what to do.

They also need to be better protected and, for example, learn how to swim. It is a simple measure but it could have saved so many children this year. In Asia, thousands of children die needlessly every year because they do not know how to swim. Every year, an estimated 2,000  children aged up to 17 drown in Cambodia and 95 per cent of those over the age of four who died from drowning did not know how to swim. It is easy to do something about this and children love to swim!

For more information visit: www.unisdr.org