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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Asia Unveils Disaster Education Campaign

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — In the 1950s, American children were taught to "duck and cover" in the case of a nuclear explosion. Now, Asia is stepping up its campaign to prepare school children for calamities.

But instead preparing for a nuclear Armageddon, the United Nations says schools are increasingly turning to games, plays and stories to teach children how to survive the earthquakes, tsunamis and floods that routinely ravage the region.

"The 2004 tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake in 2005 have been real catalysts in getting people to recognize the crucial importance of disaster risk reduction," said Gary Ovington, a regional emergency education specialist for UNICEF. He was speaking on the sidelines of a three-day disaster preparedness conference in Bangkok ending Wednesday.

"There has certainly been a lot more being done in the past three years," he said. "Before, it was hovering in the wings and now the whole issue of disaster-risk reduction and school safety has taken center stage."

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed as many as 230,000 people in 11 countries, was marked by a failure to warn many communities about the impending waves — mostly because of faulty equipment, poor communications and cumbersome bureaucracy.

It prompted the U.N. and six government donors, including the United States, to create a $130 million tsunami warning system in the region, which is expected to be fully operational at the end next year.

While the early warning system has mostly fallen into place, efforts to teach communities how to respond to impending disasters have gone more slowly. That is where schools come in, experts said, since they often reach more, influential young people as well as the community at large.

"In addressing school children, we're actually looking at educating future generations who will be able to address these issues in their families and community," said Michael Annear, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Southeast Asia regional disaster management unit.

Most curricula aim to help children understand natural threats, teach them how to escape a disaster and show what can be done to avert potential hazards — including warning against illegal logging, which can cause landslides, and building in flood zones.

In Japan and the Philippines, students practice earthquake drills — covering their heads as they head for the exits — and learn to identify disaster-proof homes. Indonesians in coastal communities are taught how to recognize the telltale signs of an impending tsunami, such as a massive quake and rapidly receding tide, and to evacuate to higher ground.

But the information must be packaged in an entertaining and interactive way to have an impact on children, experts said.

"You need repetition for kids to learn things but things also must be fun," said Derek Elias, a program specialist for UNESCO.

At the workshop, campaigns featuring cartoon characters like Mr. Warning in Thailand and adaptations of popular board games ranked among the most popular means of spreading the disaster preparation message.



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