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Going to school in areas hit by Cyclone Aila

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2010/Kiron
A boy returns home after morning classes at South Maharajpur

By Sophie McNamara

Khulna, Bangladesh, March 2010: In the hot midday sun, children and teachers use a rickety bamboo bridge to cross the floodwater that has surrounded their primary school since Cyclone Aila hit almost a year ago.

It’s the end of the dry season, but the playground remains submerged at South Maharajpur Non-Government Registered Primary School because embankments destroyed by the cyclone are yet to be reconstructed. The cyclone completely destroyed the previous school structure, but it was rebuilt as part of the Education in Emergencies (EiE) project, supported by UNICEF and implemented by Save the Children UK and Action Aid. The school is one of 600 that were repaired or rebuilt after Aila under the project.

While the small school in coastal Koyra sub-district is buzzing with activity on this humid afternoon, education was not possible in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone. “There were lots of problems for schooling. There were no books, education materials or furniture – all were destroyed. And schools themselves were destroyed,” says Alhas Shomir Uddin, a retired primary school teacher who now provides voluntary support to local schools.

At nearby Protyashita EDAS school in Maharajudpur union, many parents were forced to prioritise livelihood over education after the cyclone. “After Aila, children didn’t have clothes and parents didn’t have food in their homes. Some children helped their parents catch, process and sell fish. Children also helped their parents collect relief items – they spent a long time standing in queues,” said Rokeya Sultana, a grandmother of two boys attending the school.

Immediate action
The Education in Emergencies project, which is implemented with the Government of Bangladesh, provided learning essentials such as pencils, exercise books and school bags to schools affected by Aila. Comic books about coping in disasters featuring the popular animated character, Meena, were also distributed. Between 2007 and 2009, UNICEF also pre-positioned teaching-learning kits for 270,000 students in emergency-prone areas so that students could resume classes with minimal disruption.

At both Protyashita EDAS and South Maharajpur school, classes resumed only a few weeks after Cyclone Aila completely destroyed the schools. “We learned in the open air for a little while. It smelled bad – like rotting fish,” said nine-year-old Indrani, in class three at Protyashita. “After Aila destroyed our home, we were forced to take shelter in the high school,” she added.
Teachers and community members made home visits encouraging parents to send their children to school, and even held private lessons in children’s homes. “Teachers and the school management committee came to my home, but I wanted to send my children straight back to school anyway. I want my grandchildren to complete their education as much as possible so they have a better future,” said Rokeya, whose home was destroyed by Aila.

As part of the UNICEF-supported project, a meeting was held with the local community to create a plan and estimate costs for reconstructing the Protyashita school. Local people took ownership of the project by contributing whatever small funds they could afford, and helped manage the construction.  The new school was reopened after three months, and was expanded to accommodate 100 primary and pre-primary students (it was previously only a pre-primary school).

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2010/Kiron
Students and teaches cross the rickety bamboo bridge to leave

Preparing for future disasters
An estimated average of 900 schools each year are damaged by cyclones, floods and river erosion, and these natural disasters are predicted to become even more frequent due to the effects of climate change. Teachers in the areas affected by Aila emphasise that they teach their students how to prepare and cope in the event of future disasters.

“We tell them how to survive, how to help their parents survive, and how to protect their assets. For instance, we advise them to keep an empty drum in their homes so they can throw all their valuables in if there is a disaster, and it will float and keep everything dry,” says head teacher DM Abdur Rouf, from South Modinabad Non-Government Registered Primary school in the same sub-district.

Abdur’s school is one of 400 that have conducted ‘participatory vulnerability assessments’ to identify weaknesses in their ability to cope with future disasters. These schools are then provided with a small grant of 16,000 taka (230 USD) to implement action plans to overcome through minor infrastructure work or repairs, or purchasing supplies for temporary learning spaces. Abdur received training as part of the Education in Emergencies project on how to develop this disaster risk reduction plan.

“We held 2-3 meetings with students, teachers, parents, the school management committee and Rupantar [a local NGO] to determine our needs,” he says. “The number one priority was building a ring dam around our school to prevent flooding. Other proposals include repairing damaged furniture and constructing raised latrines to make them flood-proof.  We have already received the money and work is due to start next week.”



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