Gearing up for a Disaster

It is important for children to participate in disaster risk reduction initiatives that will shape their future and their familes and communities feels Teresa Rehman

Linu Bordoloi is a teacher in Guwahati’s Panbazar Girls HS School, one of the oldest schools in Assam. She is happy as her students now conduct mock drill earthquake exercises in their classroom just after the morning prayers before their teacher steps in. “They take it as a game. They hide under the desk or hold their bags on their head. This is more effective as they are learning are having fun as well as training themselves to be abreast of disaster management techniques. We will have to prepare a community who would be prepared to deal with a disaster,” she says.

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Rajib Dhar, a teacher in Delhi Public School, Guwahati is also known as ‘disaster’ by the students for his constant advocacy of disaster management techniques to his students. “It is important to know the strengths and weaknesses of all departments. And its important to teach the children as their role will be crucial in times of a disaster,” he adds.

More than 60 children and 30 teachers were trained on School Safety during the week-long Guwahati Emergency Management Exercise (GEMEX) held in Assam from 29 October to 4 November. Led by the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA), GEMEX is an effort to assess the preparedness of Guwahati city to respond to multi-hazards, culminating in a city-wide disaster simulation drill that trained children took part in.

“In the coming years, children’s vulnerability to disasters is expected to increase as the frequency and intensity of natural hazards rises. Building resilience in children and communities and reducing their vulnerability to disasters has, therefore, become even more imperative,” said Nandita Hazarika, Deputy Secretary and SPO, ASDMA.

Emergency Management Exercises (EMEx)es have been started in India and led by the National Disaster Management Authority since Mumbai Emergency Management Exercise (MEMEx) in the year 2008 along with sectoral partners leading different essential tracks and building capacities of important urban citizens. Education Track hence has remained an important track for making educational institutions, teachers, educators and children safe and prepared to deal with local hazards. The All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI), has been a key partner in this process from the start.

The potential hazards in India are numerous. India’s location and geographical features render it vulnerable to a number of natural hazards including cyclone, drought, floods, earthquake, fire, landslides and avalanches.

Apart from natural hazards, India is vulnerable to numerous man-made disasters as current trends in industrialization, level of economic development, rapid population growth; patterns of human settlement and environmental degradation increase the region’s vulnerability. In addition, parts of India are affected by conflicts and riots. Regions in India may be exposed to multiple hazards in a very small time period.

Child-centered Disaster Risk Reduction is an innovative approach to Disaster Risk Reduction that fosters the agency of children and youth, in groups and as individuals, to work towards making their lives safer and communities more resilient to disasters. It is empowering for children, and respects and takes into account their views and rights as well as their vulnerabilities.

The GEMEx was organised with the objective to harness the strengths and capabilities of concern emergency responders, educational institutions, hospitals, humanitarian agencies and state agencies as they prepare to confront urban catastrophes. It is more important since Guwahati is the gateway to the Northeast India and the largest city in the Northeast.

The School Safety Program under the Government of India – United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Disaster Risk Management Program essentially aims to promote a culture of safety in schools and draws on the commitment of providing a safe learning environment for children and education professionals. Primary strategies are to help inform, persuade, and integrate the issues of safety to create safe schools. The eventual goal of the program is to promote a culture of disaster preparedness in the school community. The objective is to sensitize safety measures and to motivate key stakeholders through direct participation in activities that would foster a disaster resilient community.

“The GEMEx hosted some of the most active schools – teachers and students – in Guwahati city to learn and share disaster management techniques and life saving mock drills. I am glad the preparatory workshop on ‘Disaster Preparedness for School Safety’ during October 19-20, 2012 in Guwahati decided to focus on girl child and adolescent youth. This focus is much needed,” said Dr. Muzaffar Ahmed, Member, National Disaster Management Authority.

The young participants were enthusiastic. “We have learnt about disasters in our textbooks and even scored high marks. But we did not know what to do in a real crisis situation. This exercise was an eye-opener,” says Rittwik Bhattacharyya, a student of class XI in Delhi Public School, Guwahati. Risha Bora of St Mary’s School, Guwahati said, “For the fist time, I learnt about the different types of fire extinguishers.”

Several districts of Assam have prepared their District Disaster Management Plans (DDMPs) to the state government. Among many initiatives the most important is involvement of schools and stakeholders for risk reduction activities.

Jeroo Master, Chief of UNICEF Field Office in Assam says, “Children represent 50 to 60 percent of those affected during disaster. We also know that they are the most vulnerable and are more prone to death and injuries, as well as diseases related to malnutrition and poor water and sanitation conditions that are exacerbated by disasters. But they are also powerful agents of change.”