Real lives



Local champions: disaster risk reduction in the Philippines

by Vilasa Phongsathorn

©UNICEF EAPRO/2014/Vilasa Phongsathorn
Children take part in an earthquake evacuation drill with much excitement

I recently visited Manila to find out how school communities were preparing for future natural disasters. With memories of Typhoon Haiyan still fresh, it couldn't have been timelier. It has also been over 10 years since I last visited Manila. Being half-Filipina, learning that I was invited to visit the city with UNICEF was very exciting news.

We visited local schools that have won awards for their child-friendly school initiatives and disaster preparedness and environmental education programmes. The school I visited was the Commonwealth Elementary School, located in Quezon City, the largest city in Metro Manila, with a population of nearly 2.7 million people.

As we drove to the school, we saw contrasting scenes. On the one hand, bustling business centres with tall modern skyscrapers, nicely paved roads and beautifully planted trees, showcased the city's economic growth. On the other hand, there were shanty towns where people live in makeshift homes built from scraps and used cardboards. In fact, the Commonwealth Elementary School was located in the middle of the shantytown area. 

At the school gate, street vendors lined the pavement selling various types of food, and jeepneys (a unique vehicle used for public transportation in the Philippines) congested the road. We had already heard that for 9,600 students there were merely 120 teachers. My initial thought was, can this school really be considered child-friendly?

To my surprise, the school premises was a completely different scene. There were child-friendly campaigns, for example in anti-bullying, as well as many examples of eco-friendly initiatives. Recycled plastic bottles were used as lanterns and plant pots. There were very innovative improvised water filtration systems that recycled rain water for watering plants and cleaning the school areas.

©UNICEF EAPRO/2014/Vilasa Phongsathorn
Recycling baskets at the Commonwealth
Elementary School entrance

Earthquake evacuation

After a brief introduction, we were presented with the highlight of the visit – an earthquake evacuation drill. When the signal alarm went off, the students remained in their classrooms sheltering themselves under their desks and chairs. As soon as the signal went silent, one by one they lined up to make their way to the designated evacuation areas, covering their heads with an improvised head protection made from rugs and thick cloths. 

One of the teachers told me that the head protection could help protect the children from shattered glasses and debris. Children with special needs also took part in the drill and were closely escorted by several teachers.

Although it took almost 20 minutes before all students made it to the evacuation area, the drill went smoothly, especially given the number of students who participated. I was told that these were the children who attended the school's afternoon shift. The school has to operate in two shifts – morning and afternoon – due to its large student enrolment and the shortage of teachers.

After the drill, the school principal gave a presentation on the systematic disaster preparedness developed by the school. They had made an emergency bag, which includes water, biscuits and a flashlight, for students to carry in an emergency. The school had also developed an evacuation map and placed this in front of every classroom.

Everyone was left very inspired by the school's commitment and innovative approaches to ensuring children's safety.  Personally, I was very excited to see disaster risk reduction (DRR) in action in a country where the impacts of extreme weather events have become a constant reality.

©UNICEF EAPRO/2014/Vilasa Phongsathorn
First grade students shelter under desks as
the alarm went off

Expert meeting

As well as visiting the school, I attended an Expert Meeting on Climate Change Education for Sustainable Development in Asia-Pacific. This was co-organised by UNESCO and SEAMEO INNOTECH, an organisation of Southeast Asian Ministers of Education dedicated to developing technology-based solutions to education problems and needs in the region. The meeting was supposed to be held last November in Cebu. But then typhoon Haiyan hit, so it had to be postponed and moved to Manila.

As demonstrated by the typhoon's devastating impacts, especially on the most vulnerable and marginalised communities, the issues of climate change and disaster risk reduction are becoming more and more pertinent. This is true not just in the Philippines, but in the entire Asia-Pacific region. 

As you might expect following a super typhoon, the discussions that took place during the three-day meeting were heated and filled with passion. But everyone agreed that education played an essential role in strengthening the capacity of children and young people, along with their families and communities, in regard to climate change.

It was also stressed that in order to ensure a climate-safe school environment, entire school communities – including local education authorities, administrative staff, teachers and parents – must be prepared. We need to mainstream disaster risk reduction measures in their work, while also integrating local and indigenous knowledge.

UNICEF is now working with partners – including Save the Children, Plan International, World Vision, IFRC and the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center – to promote the Comprehensive School Safety Framework. The aim is to protect students and teachers from death, injury, and harm in schools, and to strengthen climate-smart disaster resilience through education.

Although there is still a long and difficult road ahead, we must keep reminding ourselves that children have inalienable rights in all circumstances – including disasters when they are at their most vulnerable – and it is our collective duty as global citizens to do all we can to protect our future generations.


About the author
Vilasa Phongsathorn is an Education Consultant, Peacebuilding and Emergencies, at UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office.



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