Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Building back better for a safer future

- Simon Nazer, Communication Consultant for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific

Earthquake drill at Muhammadiyah 1 Primary School in Banda Aceh. New school buildings were designed to be earthquake resistant.
© UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Achmadi

UNICEF colleagues and international agencies are now mobilising after Cyclone Pam’s devastating impact on Vanuatu. It's a painful reminder of the dangers many countries in this region face, and why it is so important everyone is fully prepared to deal with what ever comes.

To find out about UNICEF’s work in reducing the impacts of disasters, a few days ago I caught up with some colleagues in Indonesia and Kiribati, some the world world’s most disaster prone areas.

Kiribati: under threat from sea water

Sea water continues to threaten communities in Kiribati – and the very future of the island.
© UNICEF Pacific/2014/Alcock

The cyclone in the Pacific Ocean is sending huge waves over the island and UNICEF’s Nuzhat Shahzadi, who has spent the last three and a half years in the tiny outcrop, kept gasping at the size of the waves which were only metres from the UNICEF field office. She told her colleagues to stay at home today but wanted to monitor the situation from the office and get in touch with me.

“There’s sea water and debris in the office compound,” Nuzhat told me over a barely stable internet connection. “I can see the waves from where I sit right now, they’re huge. Any minute now the office compound could be flooded.”

“I’ve been told two maternity clinics were completely flooded last night and patients had to move. In the past, entire schools have also been moved. Flooding is becoming an increasingly regular part of life here.”

Sea water is the big danger for Kiribati and, due to climate change, it’s slowly encroaching on beaches, roads and communities. The sea water is leaving homes and crops flooded, and is leaving families without water and food.

“There have always been floods but they used to be more predictable and less regular. Now they are very common, and they are getting bigger,” said Nuzhat, clearly concerned. “Recently, water stayed in some areas in Tarawa for three days, contaminating all the water supplies and creating power hazards. It also means further contamination of ground water by salty water and the vegetation, the little they rely on, will die.”

But there are efforts to help protect water supplies. UNICEF is working with local authorities and communities to support installation of water tanks by improving infrastructures for securing rainwater harvesting, ensuring children and families have access to safe, clean water. UNICEF is installing new rainwater harvesting systems in many parts of the outer islands, promoting ways to keep it safe at collection and storage points to protect it from contamination.

UNICEF is also working with the local authorities to help them plan better for disasters, but there’s still much to be done, says Nuzhat. “The infrastructure here is weak. The telephone lines are down, the roads are falling apart under the pressure of constant floods. It took me an hour and a half to drive just 10km to a meeting yesterday. It was the scariest drive of my life. Radio transmission doesn’t always reach many parts of the island country. This makes it difficult to warn people of potential dangers coming their way.”

A warning system and sharing information is vital to help people protect themselves from potential disasters. Over 10,000 kilometres away, there are efforts underway to ensure systems are in place to save lives during future potential disasters.

Indonesia: building back better

Sea water continues to threaten communities in Kiribati – and the very future of the island.
© UNICEF Pacific/2014/Alcock

The 2004 tsunami killed 170,000 Indonesians and left half a million people homeless after villages were swept away by vast waves. It had a devastating impact and triggered to largest humanitarian response in UNICEF’s history.

According to Michael Klaus, UNICEF Indonesia Chief of Communication, the emergency made everyone rethink how they deal with disasters. “The tsunami, which left 3,000 children orphaned, triggered the largest emergency response operation in UNICEF’s history. The impact was so dire, and it really made governments and agencies reflect on how everyone works on disaster management. That’s why UNICEF started leading on a plan to ensure communities ‘build back better’.”

Working with the government, UNICEF supported communities to rebuild their lives, and to ensure that if such a disaster happened again, they would be able to respond the right way.

“Only 17 of its 300 pupils at Muhammadiyah 1 primary school in Banda Aceh survived that day, and there were numerous distressing cases like this. That’s why UNICEF vowed to ensure the new school would be able to withstand future disasters and save lives,” Michael told me.

Engineers designed new school buildings to be earthquake-proof, with deeper foundations and stronger support systems. The desks now have thick wooden surfaces bolted to metal legs.

Students also regularly practice earthquake drills. When the alarm sounds, they drop to the floor and shelter under their desks, away from the danger of glass windows. They know when the shaking has stopped they must go outside to be counted. The children are also taught basic first aid.

This is just one example of the many ways UNICEF is working with partners to build back better. “Disaster risk reduction touches upon many areas, from health and nutrition to education and water and sanitation,” said Michael.

“Importantly, a central idea was to make sure that this was not a one-time effort. We work to make sure natural hazards, which are frequent in Indonesia, do not become major disasters for thousands of children and families, particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.”

Reducing risks for future generations

322 of 496 districts in Indonesia are under threat from natural disasters and in a country of over 85 million children, there are many vulnerable people at risk. “Indonesia, like its neighbouring countries, wasn’t prepared for such a huge disaster,” said Michael. “There was no plan in place to deal with something of that magnitude. It’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure we avoid future tragedies like we saw in Aceh. We can’t stop disasters from happening, but we can reduce the impacts.”

In Kiribati, the very future of the island is uncertain. The impacts of climate change have been very visible in Nuzhat’s time on the island nation. “I just don’t know what the future will be like,” she told me when contemplating what’s ahead for the islanders. “In my time here I’ve seen the seas rising, I’ve seen more and more flooding. There’s a lot of important work to be done here and disaster risk reduction in Kiribati is increasingly becoming a matter of whether this island has a future or not.”

Reducing the risks of future disasters is critical to ensure lives are protected. While the people in Vanuatu start piecing their lives together, it is critical that decisions made in Sendai this week help the most vulnerable.