An English schoolgirl who had learned her geography well and was able to prevent many deaths when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit Thailand in 2004 served as a prime example of how education can save lives during natural disasters as United Nations agencies launched a global campaign for education in disaster reduction in Paris today.
Tilly Smith was vacationing with her parents when the tsunami struck and she remembered the early warning signs – such as suddenly receding water – that she had been taught in a recent geography lesson. She alerted her parents, managed to clear the beach, and reportedly saved the lives of over a hundred people.
“Education and awareness-raising provide the foundations for a culture of prevention. If people in places threatened by natural disasters were conscious of the risks, and knew how to protect themselves, there would be fewer deaths, fewer wounded and less destruction when such disasters strike,” Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said at the launch at his agency’s headquarters.
The campaign, entitled Disaster Risk Reduction Begins at School, which is co-sponsored by the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), aims to promote disaster reduction education in school curricula along with improving school safety by encouraging the application of construction standards that can withstand any kind of natural hazard, UNESCO said.
More than 200 million people are affected every year by natural catastrophes and children under 18 are among the most vulnerable, especially if they are attending school at the time disaster strikes. “Investing in school safety and education pays off in the long term,” said Sálvano Briceño, Director of ISDR.
Of the nations reporting to ISDR before January 2005, only 33 of 82 claimed to have disaster-related subjects in their national primary and secondary school curricula. In Mexico, Romania and New Zealand, teaching of disaster-related subjects is mandatory. Other countries such as Brazil, Venezuela, Cuba and Japan report significant primary and secondary teaching at municipal or state level.
In regard to school construction, Mr Briceño said: “Many countries are already drawing the lessons of past disasters and taking measures to improve the level of safety of their schools. We encourage every government in the world to include disaster reduction in the curricula of school children.”
Last March, 160 schools were destroyed during an earthquake in Iran and more than 200 school children perished in the Philippines after a mudslide covered their school.
The launch of the ISDR campaign took place during the International Symposium on “Progress and proposals regarding education for sustainable development” organized by the French National Committee for the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development in Paris, 14-16 June.