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OPINION EDITORIAL Delaying action for children and communities is not an option

© World Humanitarian Summit
More than 140 people from across the Pacific region and around the world gathered in Auckland for the World Humanitarian Summit Pacific Consultations in Auckland, New Zealand.

 By Isabelle Austin, UNICEF Pacific Deputy Representative, at the World Humanitarian Summit Pacific consultation, Auckland, New Zealand

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Four of the world’s ten most disaster-prone countries are in the Pacific, wreaking havoc on lives and livelihoods for all who are affected, especially the most vulnerable. As the World Humanitarian Summit Pacific consultation draws to a close, we must remember that children are the foundation of strong, disaster-resilient communities.

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This week, leaders from across the Pacific region and the world met in New Zealand to identify ways to improve how we prepare for and respond to emergencies, including natural disasters, the impacts of climate change and conflict.  

Conference participants had a clear message for the world, calling for greater involvement of communities in all aspects of disaster preparedness and response. People from across the Pacific, including those most recently affected by Cyclone Pam, have told us that the voices, expertise and abilities of communities must be heard and respected when it comes to emergencies. Critically, communities also reminded donors, governments and humanitarian actors that the ability of communities to prepare for, and survive, disasters is directly linked to the quality of the long-term development work that came before. A piecemeal approach is not good enough. 

It can be easy though, to overlook the voices, expertise and abilities of children. Children must be a vital part of this conversation, both as those most affected by emergencies, and as those who can and will contribute to building more resilient communities. 

When a disaster strikes, children’s lives are changed forever. Death, injury, illness and the loss of the most basic human rights can happen in a moment; schooling comes to an end, family incomes disappear, hopes and dreams are washed away. When it comes to climate change, with rising sea levels, prolonged droughts and intensified storms, those least responsible for this unfolding environmental disaster are shouldering the consequences of climate change.

As the World Humanitarian Summit Pacific Consultation wraps up we must remember that delaying action for children and communities is not an option. Climate change will not wait. Natural disasters will not wait – in fact, a new tropical cyclone (one occurring well out of the Pacific’s normal cyclone season) is bearing down on the Solomon Islands as I write. We must act to protect children now and in generations to come. 

Leaders at the World Humanitarian Summit Pacific Consultations will leave with specific recommendations and concrete commitments that can be immediately implemented, even ahead of the global meeting in Istanbul in 2016. The outcome of this consultation will help to shape the future of humanitarian action in the region and beyond. We have an opportunity to work together to demonstrate that urgent change is possible. 

This week we have heard calls for the prioritisation of children in actions related to climate change – including prioritising the poorest families, those with disabilities, sustainable energy investments, climate change adaptation efforts and the involvement of children as agents of change in their communities and beyond. The time to help our children adapt to climate change is now; it will require redoubling our efforts and investments in awareness, training and education around the world. 

We have also heard calls for more innovative approaches to the way we prepare for, and respond to, emergencies. At UNICEF we are investing in school-based preparedness efforts and ensuring that Pacific countries are equipped with the right knowledge and expertise to handle climate-related occurrences. We have also established technology-based systems for engagement and consultation with children and communities, which can also be used to warn them about impending disasters and steps needed to protect themselves, as well as real time monitoring and reporting. We need to engage with children from their youngest years; just as children learn to brush their teeth or wash their hands, they must also be aware of the simple actions they can take to prepare for emergencies and become more resilient, together. 

Above all, we must listen to children. Their views on climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction should not be ignored. After Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu we asked ni-Vanuatu children for their views on what had happened. Brenen, age 12, told us “In the past, people didn’t really think about what might happen to their houses. So they built houses that looked nice but weren’t very strong. After the cyclone people realised their mistake, but it was already too late.” Cliffson, age 11, talked about the food shortages after the cyclone, saying “Now both the birds and people are trying to look for food.” Brian, age 12, told us “My message to other young people is not to give up if your house was destroyed by the cyclone. Try to help your parents to build a new home.” 

As Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, Chief of the World Humanitarian Summit secretariat said this week, “A real debate has started about what can and must be done to reduce suffering and preserve human dignity and together to think creatively about the best way to make it happen.”

We must not waste this opportunity to invest in stronger, more resilient children and communities. The time for action is now. 

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About UNICEF 

UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do.  Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere. 

For more information about UNICEF Pacific and our work visit: www.unicefpacific.org

To hear stories from children affected by Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu visit: http://bit.ly/1HPvuix 

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For more information, please contact:

Donna Hoerder, UNICEF Pacific, Tel + (679) 3236 100, dhoerder@unicef.org

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