YOGYAKARTA, INDONESIA— Asia has seen some of the world’s worst natural disasters over the past decade - earthquakes in Indonesia and China, flooding in Thailand and Cambodia. A region-wide conference on disaster risk reduction this week is focusing on schools and how to make them safer and more resilient.
The children at Jejeran State Islamic Elementary School in Yogyakarta are simulating an earthquake drill. They pour from their classrooms with school bags held over their heads. A few grab stretchers and first aid kits and attend to injured classmates. Once they have assembled in the yard a student leader reads out a disaster report: four dead, five injured, all victims have been evacuated.
In 2006 an earthquake struck this part of Central Java, severely damaging more than 2,900 schools, including this one.
Margiyanti, who teaches grade four at Jejeran, says the disaster taught the community about rebuilding and the importance of prevention.
Indonesia is a region that is highly vulnerable to disasters - earthquakes and floods - so the children must be prepared, she says. If they are at school or at home they must know what to do.
In 2010 Jejeran became part of a global campaign to make schools safer from natural disasters. Using money from foreign donors, the program tries to improve school construction techniques and create curriculum to prepare students for disasters.
The Indonesian government, meanwhile, launched a program to rehabilitate thousands of schools around the country.
Musliar Kasim, the vice minister for education, says almost 200,000 schools are in need of renovation to bring them up to global safety standards.
“Our school right now is already old, the buildings are already old because they’ve been built more than 30 years ago," said Kasim. "So the condition of the schools has to renovate. When we rehabilitate the building we have to use the concept of safe schools.”
Officials and aid workers say governments around the region have made progress in reducing the risks associated with environmental disasters. Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Burma have also launched pilot projects focused on creating safer schools.
But still more needs to be done.
In 2008 more than 7,000 shoddily-built school buildings collapsed during a 7.9-magnitude earthquake in Sichuan Province in China, killing thousands of students.
In the Philippines, typhoon Durian caused $20 million in damage to schools across three provinces in 2006.
While better construction is at the heart of the safe schools initiative, many organizations are pushing for a broader approach that also includes emergency drills and lessons that integrate disaster education.
In a developing region with a high population of children, students are often disproportionately affected when natural disasters destroy schools, which stops education for months or longer.
Antony Spalton is a risk reduction specialist at the United Nations Children’s Fund.
“We know there’s a strong relationship between hazards and development, and whether that’s economic development or whether it’s social development," he said."Children are driven out of school by floods and earthquakes.”
The fund is working with different international organizations to create a place where governments can get technical support on school safety and share knowledge.
More than a dozen students from around the region attended this week’s conference to share their experiences. In Japan, a group of students has formed a club that meets weekly to discuss ways to raise awareness about disasters and rebuilding.
In Cambodia, 17-year-old Sopaoeurn has also formed a disaster management committee, led a tree planting initiative and pushed the school to raise its floor boards to avoid the flash floods that often hit her province.
Disaster does not only affect one person, but many people around the world, she says. Most importantly, it impacts students in schools.
Teachers at Jejeran elementary say they are ready if a disaster ever strikes again. The school holds routine training drills every few months to refresh the students’ skills. In the classrooms, evacuation signs point the way to safety.
This school is still unusual in the developing world, where lack of funding and coordination makes replicating similar programs difficult. But aid groups say they are making progress by highlighting the successes.
Officials at Indonesia’s national disaster management agency say they are making safe schools a priority, because a solid, resilient building can be critical for teaching students - and entire communities - how to prepare for and deal with future disasters.