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Time for disaster preparation lessons in W.Africa schools?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 14 Oct 2011 14:24 GMT
Author: George Fominyen
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West Africa is exposed to recurrent natural and humanitarian disasters – drought, floods, locust invasions, epidemics, famines, and chronic food insecurity – yet very little practical education on how to prevent, mitigate and adapt to such disasters is given to the majority of the region’s population.

Experts say governments can help reduce the impact these disasters have on citizens by including training in disaster risk reduction in school curricula.

“Education is vital because when people know what to expect and what to do they can undertake activities to reduce the risk and impact of disasters,” Carlos Munoz, the regional disaster risk reduction advisor of U.K.-based charity Oxfam, said at an event to mark International Day for Disaster Reduction, in Dakar.  

I spent a good part of my school and work life in Buea, a small town at the foot of Mount Cameroon, an active volcano which is also the highest peak in West Africa. But I don’t remember there being at any time courses or exercises at school that gave us practical lessons on how to prepare for or react to an eruption.

What if there was an eruption and lava started flowing down towards Buea? The most I had ever heard was from local elders who used to say that a mythical mountain god always ensures that the lava from eruptions does not flow into inhabited villages.

But in 1999, when the mountain erupted, the lava flowed down the south flank, destroyed plantations in the Bakingili village and only stopped 200 metres from the sea.

Tremors that preceded and followed the eruption shook buildings. Some collapsed, while others, including the Presidential Villa in Buea, were left with cracks in their walls. My former school – St. Joseph's College Sasse – was also hit with the physics and chemistry laboratories destroyed. 

There was panic in the early days of the eruption as some frightened people took to the only exit from the town, while others stayed confused and unsure about what to do as volcanic ash filled the air and their roofs. 

The government hadn’t a clear and coherent contingency plan (and this didn't seem to have improved in 2000 when there was another eruption) and the people had no education on reacting to such a disaster. 

Although geography lessons in Cameroon include the study of volcanoes, there is little or nothing about telling signs of an imminent eruption of Mount Cameroon and what people could do if that occurred. There are no simulation exercises (as is common place in Japan to prepare for earthquakes); in fact, there aren’t even fire drills at schools (or any public buildings).

Experts say such situations are widespread in West Africa where schools don’t have basic lessons on adaptation and responses to disasters such as the droughts, food shortages, epidemics and floods that abound in the region.

A few organisations have been attempting to fill the void.

For instance, Plan International has worked with children and youth groups in Guinea Bissau and Cameroon, campaigning against the spread of cholera. The charity said that since 2009 there have been no recorded deaths of children from cholera in communities where they have been trained.

Experts say these activities show that education could help to reduce the impact of disasters in the region, but say this needs to be more systematic with solid input from governments organising education programmes.

“Designing curricula, training the teachers to teach such courses and searching for the funding to sustain such programmes are issues that require government involvement. That is why they must take the lead,” Oxfam’s Munoz said. 

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