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Children need to stay safe in disasters

By Suzanne Dvorak - posted Friday, 13 May 2011


Human beings and the natural environment are on a potential collision course.

It is now beyond doubt that climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, and is having a profound effect on the lives and livelihoods of people in the most disadvantaged communities, especially children who are disproportionately affected by disasters.

Natural disasters destroy infrastructure, schools, agricultural productions and in poor countries can leave people dependent on aid – years of development work is wiped out in hours. Rich countries however are not immune to the devastating impacts of disasters. So far in Australia this year, we have witnessed the devastating effects of floods, bushfires and cyclone, which has tested the resilience of the Australian people.

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In April, Treasurer Wayne Swan produced a forecast showing the economic cost of floods and cyclone Yasi topping $9 billion – a hard pill to swallow by any standards.

While disasters strike both rich and poor countries, the impact of them on developing countries like Haiti and Pakistan is often greater. And in these developing countries children are frequently among the most vulnerable of the vulnerable following disaster.

The fact is that during, say, an earthquake or tsunami, children are exposed to greater danger since they may not know when to flee or where to go; they can easily become separated from their parents and families; and they may not understand what is happening and become psychologically distressed.

The heart wrenching truth is that more than half of those who are affected or die in disasters are children. But it need not be that way. Although it is impossible to prevent natural hazards like cyclones and floods occurring, we can mitigate their impacts on children, families and communities.

For that to happen children must be seen as part of the solution to the problems posed by disasters, and as key to knowledge dissemination throughout a community.

Consider this stunning story of survival from tsunami-affected Japan recounted to a member of Save the Children's emergency response team in a coastal town called Onagawa this March. When six-year old Suzunosukefelt the earthquake he remembered from lessons at school that there were was a risk that a tsunami would follow. He immediately alerted his father to that risk and, heeding the warning, his father gathered up the family and ran up the hill to safety. Hundreds died in Onagawa, but Suzunosuke's family survived because he knew the dangers and what action to take.

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Make no mistake about it. Children have a valuable part to play in times of disaster. Ignore them at your peril

The relationship between climate change and disasters has surfaced as a key concern among the international community. AusAID has been one of the most prominent supporters of disaster risk reduction activities recognising that, "Disasters are most likely to affect the poorest people and that climate change is worsening their impacts and can set back progress towards the Millennium Development Goals". In fact the Australian Government is one of the few donors in the world that have a specific disaster risk reduction policy in support of their aid program.

Like us, AusAID recognize that investing in disaster risk reduction saves lives, protects development gains and is cost effective.

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About the Author

Suzanne Dvorak is CEO of Save the Children in Australia.

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All articles by Suzanne Dvorak

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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