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UN Launches Campaign to Protect Children from Natural Disasters

The United Nations is launching a global campaign to protect children from dying and being injured in natural disasters. The U.N. Disaster Reduction Bureau, UNESCO, and other international and private organizations are teaming up to get countries to build safer schools and teach children what to do when disaster strikes.

Natural disasters take a tremendous toll in lives lost, in property and livelihoods destroyed. The United Nations says the world is facing disasters on a record scale.

It says floods, drought, earthquakes and other natural hazards kill 58,000 people on average each year and affect another 225 million. Of these, it says children under 18 are the most vulnerable, especially if they are attending school at the time of the catastrophe.

The Director of the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Salvano Briceno, says several-hundred-million children attend schools in buildings that are unable to withstand the forces of nature.

"You know that there are some villages in Pakistan where all the children died. All. And, you will see the parents walking around the streets wondering what is their future. There is no future for them," said Briceno. "In some towns, all the children died because they all were at school at the moment of the earthquake."

Briceno says these children and thousands of others probably would be alive today had they been going to school in safe buildings. He says building schools that can withstand natural disasters adds only about 10-percent to the cost. So, he argues, it is not the money that is at issue, it is the political will and commitment of governments to build safer schools.

The U.N. official says another objective of the global campaign is to make disaster risk education part of every school's curriculum.

"Where are the flooding plains? If it is a drought-stricken area, where does drought strike most strongly. Where are the hills where if there is a strong rain a mudslide can happen, because the mudslides and landslides depend not only on the rains, but on the soil and the geology of the terrain ... Knowing where to plant trees to avoid the risk of fires is essential and it is very simple. It is just a matter of knowing where the winds flow," added Bricano. "So, these are basic things that children can and should learn from childhood."

The United Nations reports Asia and Africa bear a disproportionate burden of losses due to the impact of disasters. It says approximately 88-percent of all people reported killed and 96 percent of those affected by disasters occur in these two regions.

The World Bank calculates last year, losses from natural disasters amounted to $220 billion. It says losses in developing countries were 20 times higher than in developed countries. It says investing in disaster risk reduction not only saves lives, but yields huge economic and development benefits.