Learning to overcome natural disaster challenges
Thuy's story from Soc Trang
“Now I know what natural disasters are and that they can be made worse by people’s actions,”
Thach Thi Thanh Thuy, a 10-year-old student of 4A3 class, excitedly tells her fellow pupils at Lai Hoa 1 primary school, nestled in a coastal commune deep in the Mekong Delta province of Soc Trang. “We also know what to do when strong rain, thunderstorms, floods, cyclones and droughts occur,” fellow pupil Tang Nhat Hao quickly adds.
This discussion is being played out in numerous schools across six provinces as part of a UNICEF initiative to better prepare school children to respond to the growing threat of climate change and weather-related natural disaster threats. This project to set up disaster risk reduction teams in schools with Viet Nam Red Cross support and a water and sanitation initiative backed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) together engage up to 45,000 children and 4,300 teachers in 131 primary schools. These projects are part of a broader UNICEF-supported emergency response in Central Highlands, South Central and Mekong Delta provinces, funded by the Government of Japan, to Viet Nam’s worst drought and saltwater intrusion crisis in more than 90 years.
Thuy, a small-statured Khmer ethnic minority girl, was eager to share a typical day after participating in a group discussion with her school disaster risk reduction team. Each time she engages in discussions with fellow pupils, Thuy feels it is a special day as they can learn how to prepare and respond to dangers from natural disasters and climate change, especially for children. This is a common activity for thousands of children from communities vulnerable to natural disasters benefiting from UNICEF support in dealing with the current crisis and preparing effective responses to future threats. Importantly, UNICEF and partners are supporting students to sustain these activities into the future to leave a lasting legacy.
“I have learnt a lot from discussions with classmates and teachers about natural disasters and climate change. Now, I know what to do when a natural disaster comes to us. But I want my sisters, schoolmates and friends in the village to also know as much as I do. I hope teachers can guide me and other schoolmates more on how to better talk to others about natural disasters,” said Thuy.
Thuy’s day starts at 5am. She wakes with her 7-year-old sister Thach Thi Thu Van in the small room they share to eat a simple breakfast and get ready for school, while their older brother and parents prepare to work in the fields. As her family live far from the village centre in Vinh Chau district’s Lai Hoa commune, getting to school is often a challenge. This has become more acute in recent years with greater intensity weather events increasingly common. The current drought and more prolonged hot spells in the past have made the 5 kilometre cycle to and from school particularly arduous. Often the heat forces Thuy and her sister to take breaks during their journey.
The following rainy season is no better, with progressively more severe flooding over a three to five month period in recent times making it impossible to reach school by bicycle. This forces their father Thach Hoang Kha to take them by boat, a more than half an hour trip each way that eats into valuable work time. Despite the hardships, Thuy and her sister refuse to miss a day of school, especially now they are receiving engaging lessons that explain these weather events that impact on their daily lives and how they can better prepare.
At 9am, Thuy joins her schoolmates for one of the highlights of their day – an innovative and participatory lesson on disaster risk reduction, which today involves visualizing likely disaster risks in their village and developing a school disaster risk map. The lesson is taught by teachers trained by UNICEF and Viet Nam Red Cross, who have helped set up child-centered disaster risk reduction lessons and activities to raise awareness, skills and achieve behavior changes in the recognition and prevention of natural disasters. Such groups of teachers have been established at 24 primary schools in six emergency response provinces to pilot the project, which has potential to be replicated in more schools in the future. Thuy, as an enthusiastic learner, was one of a number of students selected to form a 31-strong core group, whose purpose is to disseminate knowledge on disaster preparedness to their peers to help behaviour in school and hopefully within the broader community. This core group often initiates activities, while teachers play the role of guides.
Before she joined the core team, Thuy had little understanding of natural disasters aside from the punishing results, particularly the energy-sapping rides home from school and the sudden storms that scared her schoolmates.
“I now know floods can be caused by people cutting down trees. When people take away trees, rainwater cannot be controlled and will cause flooding,” said Thuy. Importantly, students are also learning how to respond to emergencies.
“When a cyclone occurs, I should not go out into the schoolyard. When a flood-tide comes, I must ask my parents or an adult to help me get higher and away from the water,” said her schoolmate Hao.
Thuy finishes her last lesson at 11:30am. Before leaving for home, Thuy and her classmates drink from a new water filter system established at the school by UNICEF to provide clean drinking water for children. By not having to drink bottled and often unsafe water from home, children can better protect their health and avoid diseases when disasters strike.
UNICEF worked with MARD to install 120 water filtration systems for more than 40,000 school children and nearly 4,000 teachers across six drought-affected provinces (Binh Thuan, Ben Tre, Gia Lai, Kon Tum, Ninh Thuan and Soc Trang) to provide dependable drinking water all year round.
“I really like to drink water from the school water filter system. The water is fresh and cool. And it’s very easy to drink the water. The system is always full of water - I just pass by and drink. It’s great that I no longer need to bring water from home. It’s so heavy,” said Thuy.
Upon Thuy and her sister reaching home, it’s lunchtime. First, Thuy insists her sister join her in thoroughly washing their hands with soap before eating, especially after going to the toilet, as learnt from the “clean hands campaign” at school, rolled out as part of personal hygiene and environmental sanitation lessons from the UNICEF emergency response.
After lunch Thuy will often do homework, share and discuss lessons from the day on how her family can better prepare for natural disasters.
“We can do simple things now, it is important we are ready to respond to natural disasters,” said Thuy.
As Thuy and her family sit down for dinner at 6pm, conversations are often dominated by her father who complains about family hardships caused by recent weather changes. Thuy realizes how much the weather changes have affected her family. It rents land to grow watermelons, yet recent drought-related water shortages have made this impossible.
Thuy knows if crops continue to fail she may be forced to drop out of school like some of her classmates to accompany their families to find employment in Ho Chi Minh City or the Central Highlands to harvest coffee.
The reality is, the recent drought and saltwater intrusion crisis will not be the last for coastal communities like Thuy’s especially vulnerable to climate change-related weather events. However, Thuy and the many thousands of school children like her, thanks to UNICEF’s innovative approach to enhancing disaster risk knowledge and preparedness in schools, are now better equipped to meet the challenges of climate change today in Viet Nam and decades to come. And importantly, with more scope for teachers to encourage peer discussions in the classroom, more students like Thuy can become messengers of hope to ensure good behaviours are replicated in other communities.