Effort to cut child deaths includes new construction standards for schools, evacuation drills and putting climate risks into the curriculum
By Saleem Shaikh
SAJAWAL, Pakistan, Oct 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When seven hours of non-stop rain led to a flash flood that swept through his village school, leaving it heavily damaged, science teacher Ali Zamin Samejo had to be hospitalised for shock.
"I passed out in a matter of seconds in the morning, seeing my school knocked down by the devastating flood," remembers the 35-year-old, fighting back tears.
What worried him most about the 2010 flood in Ghorabari, about 200 kilometres from Karachi, was whether his 22 students would be able to continue their education, he said.
Six years later, he's still teaching in the village - only now classes take place under a tree, as the school has not yet been rebuilt.
Schools in flood-prone Pakistan are proving particularly vulnerable to worsening extreme weather and shifting rainfall patterns linked to climate change, officials say.
According to the country's National Disaster Management Authority, about 10,000 educational institutions were damaged or destroyed in mega-floods that affected a fourth of Pakistan in 2010.
Since then another 10,000 schools have been damaged in subsequent floods through 2015, the authority said.
But a new national plan, set to be put into action next year, aims to reduce the risk schools, teachers and students face by improving construction standards for schools, creating disaster management plans, holding evacuation drills, and raising awareness of the risks through things like speaking competitions and painting exhibitions.
Disaster risk reduction will also become a focus in school curriculums, according to the plan.
"We have already received applause from the federal education ministry and provincial education departments for framing the plan, and we feel really proud of it," said Major-General Asghar Nawaz, chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).
The programme, created with backing from UNICEF, the United Nations children's agency, is expected to be put in place across the country with the help of the education ministry, the National Commission for Human Development and community-based organisations, Nawaz said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But making it work will require not just getting teachers and students on board, but winning funding and political support, Nawaz cautioned.
"Political will and allocation of required funding are the key to making the plan deliver," he said.
Shaheena Khan, manager of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, which provided advice in building the plan, agreed that both could potentially be in short supply.
"Given the previous track record of the government agencies regarding their failure to fund such worthwhile plans, I feel afraid the plan may end up on a shelf," she said. "Because it would require large-scale funding, the federal and provincial governments may feel shy about financing it."
Seeking funds from climate change bodies such as the international Green Climate Fund or the Adaptation Fund could be one solution, she said.
Moving at-risk schools or ensuring construction efforts meet building codes, in particular, could prove a major challenge, said Tariq Hussain, director general of the country's Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority.
But he said fairly simple measures like putting flood-prone schools atop raised earth platforms and using wood plank and tin-roof construction in earthquake zones could help.
GETTING KIDS INVOLVED
Until such changes happen, schools are a risky place for children during disasters, he said. During the country's 2005 earthquake, more than 18,000 children died and thousands more were injured when over 58,000 schools were destroyed.
"Preparing schoolchildren and teachers through mock exercises at school about saving their lives in case of disasters is of unprecedented value," he said.
Some of the risk children face in disasters is the result of decisions made by parents, teachers and government officials, said Zaheer Gohrao, education programme manager for the National Commission for Human Development.
That means that helping those groups understand disaster risks and what might be done about them, through things like community meetings, news broadcasts and talks by community and religious leaders, "can play a vital role in addressing the impacts of disasters", he said.
Getting children involved in learning to protect themselves - rather than treating them as passive victims in disasters - will help them "develop skills to respond to any disaster risk on their own", Gohrao said in an interview.
What children learn also can be passed on to parents and other family and community members, said Amanullah Khan, head of the U.N. Development Programme's environment unit in Pakistan.
"Children are the motivational reservoir, who encourage their family members to act. They connect families with the community," Khan said.
Samejo, the teacher who lost his school in Ghorabari, said he finds the new push hugely encouraging.
"Previously it was my impression that making the education sector disaster resilient was the government's lowest priority," he said. "But now, as they've come up with the national school safety blueprint, we teachers don't cast doubt anymore."
(Reporting by Saleem Shaikh; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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