13 March 2015: The future belongs to those who prepare for it today – and whatever you think, preparation and vulnerability reduction can save you when a disaster strikes.
The Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) was put in place 10 years ago, to detail the work needed for all different governmental and non-governmental sectors to reduce the loss from natural disasters. In short, it was there to drum home the importance of reducing vulnerability in the face of disasters.
For me, it was a way to bridge the gap between development and disasters. I was involved from the outset and my fellow humanitarian colleagues agreed that governments had to invest in Disaster Risk Management (DRM) structures for their country, and do it quickly.
The reason was there for all to see – and it was devastating.
When the 2005 earthquake struck Pakistan, 19,000 children died, most of them in widespread collapses of school buildings. At the time, building regulations were not being enforced on public schools – and ultimately it was the children that suffered. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggested that a higher proportion of public schools were catastrophically damaged, compared to non-governmental buildings in the same areas.
A decade on, there has been a huge shift by governments across the world. It’s worked, as budgets have been set aside and governments have been quick to act, proving DRM can and will save lives.
In 1999, a cyclone tore across Odisha (formerly Orissa), India, killing some 10,000 people. Marked improvement in DRM meant Cyclone Phailin, which struck the same area in 2013, claimed just 27 lives as the local government ensured communities evacuated.
Time for a new framework
Now, as the HFA draws to a close, it’s time for a new framework to take the helm and it will be under discussion in Sendai, Japan, as 8,000 people gather together for the third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction.
For me, the job isn’t done, not by a long shot - and right now we’re approaching the last mile in action.
Yes, many governments have taken the HFA on board and the issue of DRM and vulnerability seriously. In Ecuador, as in many other countries, there is a dedicated National Secretary for Risk Management. It’s heartening to see how the HFA has influenced communities and empowered them to take action when it comes to emergencies.
It is essential these changes filter down to local governments, but it’s imperative that this happens globally and that clear targets are put in place to drive stronger improvements. However, no matter how much money is ploughed into disaster risk reduction, if the message doesn’t reach the community level, there’s no point.
Reaching communities through young people
Over the past decade it has been clear to see that the most efficient vulnerability reduction programmes are those that grow from community level, and then connect with government structures at a regional, national and international level – so, for me, that’s the place to start.
One way Plan International reaches these communities is through young people.
We want to build a culture of safety, and if children learn about disasters at school, they will be able to share their knowledge with their family.
Millions of children are affected by disasters every year and the frequency and ferocity are increasing. Moreover, when a disaster strikes, children and young people tend to suffer disproportionately.
It is imperative they know what to do, and that’s why Plan has put in place a Safe Schools Global Programme, which engages partners in the education sector to promote schools as a platform for children and youth to grow up safely.
Keeping schools safe
Worldwide, approximately 1.24 billion students are enrolled in primary and secondary schools*. Yet 875 million school children live in areas of high seismic activity**, while hundreds of millions more face danger from regular flooding, landslides, extreme winds and fire hazards.
With children spending up to 50% of the time they are awake in school, the risk of needing to be prepared to deal with a disaster during school time is very real. Yet all too often school facilities are at risk of extensive damage.
If a school is not built and maintained to withstand an earthquake or constructed to tackle a typhoon, it can cause irreplaceable loss to families, communities and countries – not to mention lifelong injuries.
It can also have a big impact on a child’s education. You just need to think back to the Pakistan Earthquake.
Our safe school programme seeks to build a culture of safety among children and their communities in areas at a high risk of natural disasters. A safe school provides a learning environment where children’s education, health, safety and security are ensured in both normal times and during disasters.
Zero dead, zero injured
From Bangladesh to the Philippines, I have seen how these programmes have helped prepare children for disasters – and saved countless lives.
After Typhoon Haiyan tore the Philippines apart, I visited numerous barangays (districts) - including Balankayan, Eastern Samar, where the chart on the town council office wall declared “zero dead, zero missing, zero injured” of its 10,226 population.
Yet neighbouring towns saw scores killed when the wrong buildings were chosen as evacuation centres or people stayed put. The community of Balangkayan were prepared and as soon as they learnt about Haiyan, they moved to safety and managed to keep track of everyone.
Now, as the new framework that will replace Hyogo comes under discussion, we are calling for the protection of school children and students in the education environment to be prioritised. I want to see children actively trained on preparing for disasters – something Plan is taking seriously.
Investing in disaster preparedness can and will save many lives – and this starts from a young age. For me, children really are the last mile in action.
Roger is attending the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, which runs from 14-18 March.
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