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At a glance: Philippines

In the Philippines, communities face down disaster by learning to be prepared

Marking the International Day for Disaster Reduction

By Rob McBride

NEW YORK, USA, 13 October, 2010 – As the world marks the International Day for Disaster Reduction today, communities around the globe are working hard to keep up with the many new and emerging methods and technologies for preparing for future disasters and rapidly changing climate conditions.

VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Rob McBride reports on efforts to prevent disaster near a volcano in the Philippines.  Watch in RealPlayer


Children pay the highest price in a disaster. Typically they represent 50 to 60 per cent of those affected, whether through loss of life or from diseases related to malnutrition, poor water and sanitation – conditions that are cruelly exacerbated by emergencies.  In addition, disasters disrupt education and cause psychological distress.

In the Philippines, frequent typhoons, flooding, volcanic eruptions and landslides have compounded the challenge of creating lasting solutions for the educational system. It’s been just over a year since several typhoons, including Ketsana, killed hundreds and affected up to 10 million people in southern Asia. As a result, many Filipinos live in a constant state of fear as they anxiously brace for the next catastrophe.

This type of on-going stress eventually takes a mental toll that can never be truly measured.

Perpetual risk

The sharp, jittery clang of an alarm bell rudely disrupts a quiet afternoon at the San Jose Elementary School in the Philippines’ Albay province. Staff, students and their parents immediately spring into action – they have practiced this drill many times before and understand that in this disaster-prone corner of the country, it is an exercise that could one day save lives.

© UNICEF/2008/McBride
San Jose Elementary School students in Albay province, Philippines are learning about disaster risk reduction and preparedness through a community programme supported by UNICEF.

Behind this school, ominously shrouded in the mist and steam, Mount Mayon volcano looms over them all, serving as a permanent reminder that the threat of danger is perpetual.

While students file outside into the schoolyard, some of the children carry books and teaching materials to a safe room. Then, in safe block of classrooms specially built with UNICEF support, the ‘evacuees’ set about removing partitions, desks and chairs to create a roomier space. Despite the interruption, the school continues to operate.

Learning to be prepared

Principal Adelia B. Vibar said that the school has prepared alternative courses of action for the case of an emergency. For instance, in a disaster scenario, the school might be flooded with refugees from other communities. “We can hold classes for local students in the morning, and the newcomers having classes in the afternoon,” explained Ms. Vibar.

© UNICEF/2008/McBride
Students at San Jose Elementary School in Albay province, Philippines.

Apart from the threat of eruptions or landslides of unstable volcanic ash dislodged by torrential rains, the province of Albay is also prone to devastating typhoons that sweep in from the Pacific Ocean. The most devastating storm in recent memory was Typhoon Reming, which struck in 2006.

Ayn Realasa, 14, remembers Reming well. “Our roof was blown off,” she said. “We thought it was the end, but we recovered.”

As a student representative on her local Disaster Risk Reduction Council, Ayn has a key role to play at Marcial O. Ranola Memorial High School.  She and her team give regular first aid instruction to their peers and help to them prepare for another potential emergency.

Knowledge and self-reliance

The instruction is lively and the process good-humoured. A show of hands solicited by Arnaldo Arcadio, a UNICEF consultant on Education in Emergencies, shows that nearly all staff and students here have had to live through a life-threatening typhoon.

© UNICEF/2008/McBride
Mount Mayon volcano looms above city of Legazpi in the Philippines, a constant reminder of possible disaster.

“The hazards will always be there,” said Mr. Arcadio. “But if we have an informed student body, we will be able to minimize the effects of these disasters.”

Supported by UNICEF, the local non-governmental organization TABI organizes a number of initiatives in Albay’s schools. Back at San Jose Elementary School, Antonette Liquigan, 11, leads a student group who identifes the potential hazards around the school. “I’m happy that I get to help children and that I can keep them safe,” said Antonette.

The focus of TABI’s work with the local community is on self-reliance, knowing that in times of emergency they may only have each other for support.

“When Government is not available, what we have are the children,” explained TABI coordinator Maricris Binas. “What we have is the local community.”



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