As Cyclone Roanu approached the coast of Bangladesh last May, 10-year-old Mohammad Hossain worried about his father, a fisherman out at sea in the Bay of Bengal.
But the schoolboy, who lives in the Kutubdia Para neighbourhood of Cox’s Bazar, a town on the southeast coast of Bangladesh, knew what to do. He sent his father, Ramzan Ali, a text message, asking him to return to shore and take shelter.
But Mohammad wasn’t done with his warnings. He went door-to-door in his community, which lies just 100 metres from the sea, warning people – particularly the elderly, disabled and other children – that a cyclone was about to hit.
He then guided some of them, including a disabled boy and his own mother and five siblings, to the shelter six kilometres away.
The Class 5 student had learned about disaster preparedness at school through a programme that teaches children in Bangladesh’s storm-prone coastal regions how to limit the damage from disasters like cyclones.
“During a normal tide, seawater comes to nearly the edge of Kutubdia Para. If a cyclone hits, our locality will be inundated due to high tide, causing a huge loss and damage,” Mohammad said.
Starting in schools
The educational programme, run by Bangladesh’s government with support from charity Save the Children and ECHO, a European Commission humanitarian aid effort, aims to make school children ambassadors for disaster preparedness in their neighbourhoods, spreading the knowledge they gain at school among family members and the wider community.
Eleven-year-old Tasfia Sultana of the Mohseniapara Shikhon School, for instance, can now explain the system of red flags displayed at schools, mosques or elsewhere to warn of an approaching cyclone.
When one red flag is displayed, she said, a warning should go out to the community that a cyclone is coming. Two red flags are a danger signal, alerting people to take shelter in their homes.
Three red flags mean extreme danger, and everyone should take shelter in cyclone centres or other safe places, she said.
Zulfiqar Bushra, education director at Save the Children in Bangladesh, said his organisation hopes to expand the programme to 65,000 primary schools, 35,000 secondary schools and thousands of other educational institutions.
“We are closely working with the government to institutionalise school disaster management in order to … protect the rights of every last child,” Bushra said.
Low-lying and heavily populated Bangladesh is one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, particularly as climate change impacts become more severe. Cyclones hit the coastal regions nearly every year.
A 1970 cyclone killed more than 300,000 people, while another in 1991 caused the loss of over 100,000 lives. Efforts to reduce disaster risk have since cut the death toll from similarly large cyclones, including Cyclone Sidr in 2007, which killed around 3,500 people, and Aila in 2009, which claimed fewer than 400 lives.
The drastic reduction in deaths is due in part to the introduction of large-scale early warning systems – many involving schoolchildren – as well as the construction of multi-purpose cyclone shelters along the coast, according to Mohammad Atiqur Rahman, a joint secretary of Bangladesh’s Disaster Management and Relief Ministry.
“We’ve included disaster preparedness issues in textbooks from Class 3 to Class 12,” he said. “If we can teach schoolchildren how to respond to cyclone warnings, including how and when to evacuate and where to find shelter, they’ll convey the message to their families and communities as well.”
Rafiqul Islam, Thomson Reuters Foundation