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Disaster risk reduction at school: Children offer experiences and suggestions

© UNICEF/Karen Emmons
Young participants at the Asia-Pacific Regional Workshop on School Education and Disaster Risk Reduction in Bangkok

By Karen Emmons

Bangkok, 15 October 2007 - After the engineers, the builders, the educators and some of the aid workers talked about making schools and students stronger against disasters, 16-year-old Nazanin Ramezanzadeh reminded them of the critical importance of a teacher’s attitude.

Nazanin spoke vigorously about safety and well-being as she and five other teenage survivors of calamities sat before some 200 participants at the Asia-Pacific Regional Workshop on School Education and Disaster Risk Reduction in Bangkok, which took place in the second week of October.

“I don’t forget easily how emergency drills conducted at school were not taken seriously by teachers or students,” says Nazanin, who survived an earthquake that devastated her Iranian city of Bam. “For students it was recreation and for teachers they would go to the office and relax.”

When the ground shook three times during the night of 26 December 2003, no one in Nazanin’s family took it seriously either. They all went back to sleep. Then the ground shook again and their world turned upside down. By the morning, her mother was injured, her father dead; Nazanin was angry and nervous for more than a year afterwards. “If we had had equipment in the house, we could have rescued my father,” she believes, explaining how, in their weakness, she and her mother had lifted heavy rubble, desperately trying to reach her father.

Her keen memory and strong emotions, four years later, shine a defining light on the critical importance of risk reduction and mitigation prior to an emergency.

Her experiences and those of the other five young people have led them to clarity on specific ways of helping children be prepared for and survive these types of natural disasters. Each provided recommendations for strengthening disaster preparedness.

Their perspective and their suggestions reinforce the necessity of having young people included in the disaster risk-reduction process. “Not seeing a disaster from their eye level only creates a blind spot in the best of any preparedness plan,” said Gary Ovington, UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office Emergency Education Specialist.

The Asia-Pacific regional workshop is part of focused attention among UN agencies, international and local organizations and governments on reducing school children’s vulnerability to disasters and improving the resilience of school communities when disaster strikes.

“The ultimate aim,” says Ovington, “is to integrate disaster risk reduction into school curricula – and build safer schools.”

“You can teach us, but we can help you teach others,” explained Dexter Arnaldo, 18, from the Philippines, after recalling his terrifying encounter with a typhoon and torrential flooding last year.

“Governments must pay attention to oral histories,” explained Beby Febri Kurnia, 14, whose home island of Simelue in Indonesia was heavily devastated by the 2004 earthquake and tsunami. Because of local wisdom, every person, including children, on her island that was near the epicenter, knew to run to higher ground after an earthquake. Only seven – of 78,000 – people died, whereas other neighbouring islands experienced massive loss of life.

© UNICEF/Karen Emmons
Suriya Shenaka

Fifteen-year-old Suriya Shenaka from a beach village near Phuket in southern Thailand told the workshop participants how children can help reduce risks in communities. Last year his school set up a Child-Led Disaster Risk Reduction programme. Its 17 members created an evacuation plan for the school. They talked with every family in the community about their tsunami experiences and then created a risk and resource map from their collected details that was used for creating a preparedness plan. They also created a calendar with tsunami warning signs and what to do in an emergency.

Suriya’s motivation for joining the risk-reduction students’ group? “We children can do something for the community’s safety,” he says.

In her long list of recommendations for reducing risks at school, Nazanin asked for rescue and first-aid equipment to be stored in a safe place in schools. She also suggested a book describing experiences students from around the world have encountered in disasters and how to deal with such a situation, and another book on confronting the psychological issues that remain once the chaos clears.

The Asia-Pacific Regional Workshop on School Education and Disaster Risk Reduction was jointly organized by UNESCO, UNICEF, UNESCAP, UNCRD, UNOCHA, IFRC, ASEAN, ADRC, ADPC, ASB, and UN/ISDR Asia Pacific.



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