Disaster preparedness saved hundreds of children`s lives in Azerbaijan
By Elena Veliyeva
ZAGATALA, Azerbaijan, 11 April 2013 – For the past three years, children in this small village school have taken part in disaster preparedness education. They recounted recently how this has helped save their lives from a major earthquake.
Nestled in the slopes of the snow-capped Greater Caucasus mountain range, the Zagatala region is about 450 kilometers northwest of the capital Baku and prone to natural hazards such as earthquakes, landslides and mudflows.
To address this, a project called "Supporting disaster risk reduction amongst vulnerable communities and institutions in South Caucasus" has been carried out by the government in partnership with UNICEF and funded by European Commission’s DIPECHO disaster preparedness programme under the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Directorate. It is implemented in eight disaster prone regions globally, including in the South Caucasus.
Through games, workshops and practical exercises, children were taught preparedness skills for the kinds of emergencies they may face and what they need to do to protect themselves and others. Learning was fun but they now vividly recalled how the knowledge and drills saved them.
On 7 May 2012, a 5.6-magnitude quake jolted the region. It was the strongest earthquake in the country, destroying 3,000 houses and public buildings. Their school was severely damaged but despite having more than 200 people inside the school walls, there were no deaths or injuries.
"We were having a history class when suddenly [the school] shook violently,” said 16-year-old school boy Tarlan Mammadov. “We were very scared because this was our first experience. But despite the fear in those first few minutes, we immediately recalled all the things we had been taught. "
"We knew that we had to quickly hide under the desk and cover our heads with our hands. We were taught that one should not jump out of the windows, "said Aybaniz Mammadov, who recently graduated.
Their school was among the most active participants out of the ten schools in the project in five regions of Azerbaijan - Shamakhi, Sheki, Zagatala, Saatli and Sabirabad. This is one of the few schools in the country where an evacuation plan was developed and children regularly receive lessons on disaster risk reduction and conducted emergency drills.
All the preparedness kicked into action and they were able to overcome their fear and panic to escape danger. Having waited out the powerful tremors in a safe place, children then evacuated the building in an orderly manner in just 15 minutes, said Aybaniz.
"It really helped to have evacuation drills and to conduct them regularly," said Gazykhanov Hussein, a Russian language teacher with 30 years of teaching experience.
He and other teachers had special training provided in the framework of the project by experts from the Ministry of Emergency Situations and the Ministry of Education.
Initially, the project was designed to provide training only at the elementary level. However, at the insistence of the school administration, the course is now held regularly in all grades, from the first to the eleventh.
"Children`s safety is our main objective. The school administration, teachers and students, as well as the parents all enthusiastically support the project, "said Abdulrahman Soltanov, the school principal. He commended the learning-through games-approach which makes it faster and easier for children to absorb and retain the knowledge.
The project is not only focused on knowledge and skills. Staff psychologists at all schools are undergoing training to work with children who may develop stress in the aftermaths of a disaster.
"We have often been taught in school that we should not be afraid. An earthquake is a common occurrence in nature and it can happen again, but we must be ready for this, "said Aybaniz.
The school’s principal believes that being emotionally prepared is crucial.
"It's always scary to go into a dark room. But if you were forewarned what to expect in the room, it is much less scary, "he said.
By working with the younger generation, the most vulnerable in emergencies, UNICEF aims to develop a culture of safety so that other preventable incidents can be avoided.
The experience in the region has prompted the Ministry of Education to have more teaching hours devoted to disaster risk reduction in the national school curriculum. They intend to introduce mandatory disaster risk reduction training courses so that every school in Azerbaijan can protect their most important resource: its children.