Knowing the danger signals
Schoolchildren lead the way in disaster preparedness
By Mario Cabrera
COTABATO CITY, PHILIPPINES – “Know the risks.” Standing confident in front of her classmates, Nhoronisa Akmad, 10 years old, proceeds to explain the meaning of the first ‘K’ in the initials ‘KKPP’ scribbled on a green card that she holds up. She alternately asks her classmates questions to see how much they have learned from the day’s earlier session and gets snappy responses.
Nhoronisa, together with her classmate Ahna Antong, also 10, have just been through ‘Kids Camp’, a children’s workshop aiming to prepare schoolchildren in Maguindanao Province for various types of disasters. Among these disasters, flooding is closest to the schoolchildren’s collective experience.
A year earlier, in June 2011, steadily rising floodwaters from the city’s arterial river submerged their school and other schools and communities in knee-deep water. Heavy rains spawned by a tropical cyclone as well as overgrown water hyacinths had caused the river to overflow its banks, in turn causing massive flooding for weeks throughout the city. As a result, classes, which were about to signal the start of the new academic year, had to be delayed indefinitely. In J. Marquez Integrated School where the two girls attend class, reading and teaching materials, classroom furniture as well as sanitation facilities were either washed away or damaged beyond use. At the same time, the school’s upper level had to be put to good emergency use. At the height of the flooding, it served as evacuation centre for at least 130 families, mostly families of the school’s students.
The ‘kids’ camp’ is just one of a number of the activities under the Project DRAPEES (Development of School-based Response, Preparedness and Recovery for Education in Emergencies) supported by AECID through UNICEF and implemented by NGO partner Community and Family Service International (CFSI). The project aims to bring together various community players and government agencies to raise awareness and preparedness in the face of recurrent natural and human-induced disasters, particularly in the Philippines’ southern region of Mindanao. Above all, it strongly advocates for the uninterrupted access of children to education, even in the direst of situations, as part of their basic rights.
Due to this project, classes at the J. Marquez school was not suspended for long. Having given district school officials a timely orientation on ‘Education in Emergencies’, UNICEF and its partners were able to have a memorandum drafted so that classes resume at the earliest possible time. The school principal gathered its faculty to inform their students that classes would be held temporarily at the upper level of the city’s public market, which city officials had allowed.
“For about three weeks, this was their classroom,” Peter Van Ang-ug, school principal, recounts. “Still there were students from other flooded schools that congregated here. With the teaching of regular lessons not feasible, the school devised an alternative curriculum that focused on disaster preparedness and catered to the children’s psychosocial needs.”
Restoring education after an emergency not only meets the fundamental right of children to education but also helps children overcome the psychological impact of disasters. After a crisis, schools can act as safe spaces and restore the rhythm of children’s daily lives. Schools also provide a protective environment for children who become more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. In the long term, continued education can promote social cohesion and contribute to the social and economic stability of the flood-affected areas.
As the floods subsided, teachers, parents, community leaders and aid agencies came together to rebuild the school.
Salik Sulaiman, the school’s disaster risk reduction (DRR) coordinator says: “We immediately jumped to the task of repairing damaged facilities. With donor funds and volunteer labour from some parents, we were able to flood-proof our classroom partitions, replacing its lower wooden panels with concrete bases.” With the Parent Teacher Community Association (PTCA) actively helping out, use of funds were therefore maximised and the balance amount channelled to other repairs. What’s more, the experience has given the children’s parents a strong sense of ownership of the school and co-stewardship of their children’s education, he adds.
PTCA head Hadji Nasser Abubakar says that with parents actively helping out and because of this recent close joint experience with school officials, he is fully confident that together they would be able to successfully manage any future emergency.
As for Nhoronisa and Ahna, our two Grade 5 students, they are now re-echoing what they’ve learned from kids camp to their classmates. Soon their own classmates will be forming their own groups of ‘frontline responders’ trained in emergency situations.
Nhoronisa’s eyes light up at the thought of now being able to help others, including her siblings and parents, in the ways of disaster preparedness. In their own home, they now have an emergency ‘grab bag’ within easy reach. Ask her what a ‘grab bag’ should contain and she will quickly rattle off: “water, money, transistor radio, personal hygiene products, and other essential items.” This, she says, she easily learned from Kids Camp: “We played a treasure-hunt game where we searched for things that would be useful during emergencies and gather them in an emergency bag. It was a fun experience.”
Already sounding like an expert emergency responder, Ahna adds: “I will tell my classmates that it is important to learn these skills and be always prepared for any emergency be it in school or at home. When our parents are not at home, we should know how to reach them by having their phone numbers handy. We should also have an agreed evacuation plan written down and posted at home so that we would all know what to do and where to go in times of emergency.”
Since the 2011 flooding, J. Marquez School and other schools in the region have made significant headway, if not in completely rebuilding their school, in building the proper attitudes and mindset in preparing for and acting on emergencies, in whatever form. Earlier this year, the school principal was asked to share their experience in a national seminar attended by other school principals and educators throughout the Philippines.
Encouraging as this is, Yul Olaya, UNICEF EiE specialist, says there is still much to be addressed. “For one,” he says, more of the country’s teachers need to be trained for skills not just for normal times but for emergency situations as well. Likewise, community participation still needs to be strengthened.” Yul, however, believes that the project already has its own good share of experiences. “We now aim to present these experiences to our education officials to prove that this mechanism actually works.”