Experts involved in a two-year program on disaster mitigation run by United Nations and other bodies aim to raise awareness at schools about the dangers of natural disasters, and how to react when disasters strike to save lives. Ron Corben reports from Bangkok that the recent Bangladesh cyclone highlighted the importance of schools in saving lives in disaster-prone regions of Asia.
The warnings went out last week as cyclone Sidr bore down on Bangladesh. Thousands died in the disaster, but experts believe the toll would have been much higher if Bangladesh had not been actively preparing communities for disaster. A key battleground has been the schools.
Promoting the use of schools is central to the disaster mitigation programs of the United Nations' International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and other bodies.
At recent disaster management conferences in Thailand and India, participants stressed the use of education to prepare, prevent and then deal with disasters.
In Bangladesh, lessons were learned from disasters in the past. Mohammad Fazlul Quader, a headmaster from Anowara, in Chittagong, Bangladesh's port area, says his school supports local communities whenever warnings are raised.
"We open our school for the community with the help of cyclone preparedness program volunteers, we evacuate people to cyclone shelters where the necessary facilities, drinking water, sanitation, cooking in the shelters. We take special care of women and children," he said.
The school runs cyclone preparedness programs. Fazlul says the drills and evacuation exercises are "very effective".
A student from the same school, Saddam Hossan, says he and fellow students have been trained in tsunami and cyclone awareness.
"We have learned a lot about cyclone warnings and what to do in case of a cyclone warning," said Hossan. "In the last week of September this year at nighttime we had an announcement that tsunami waves were coming from the sea. I along with my brothers and sisters and parents immediately took shelter in our high school building which is a disaster shelter as well."
Roditha Hidago, a Filipino high school teacher from Legazpi City hit by a typhoon in 2006, remembers it well.
"Having experienced Nature's wrath, four typhoons in a row, a lingering volcanic eruption and a mud flood, I cannot but cry to express my feeling," said Hidago. "How can I forget November 30, 2006, when the super typhoon Reming struck the province of Albay? Wind, water and earth combined to wipe out entire villages."
Hidago, her husband and children survived thanks to help from a neighbor whose house was strong enough to withstand the ferocious winds. She believes awareness can save lives.
"We can evade from a disaster if we are aware of the hazards and risks of it," she said. "If we're prepared and have full knowledge and the basic steps on what to do before, during and after a calamity."
Knowledge of a threat is not enough however, as people in the ancient Iranian city of Bam found in December 2003.
An earthquake killed about 43,000 people. Many had ignored early warnings and died in their sleep.
Nazarnina Ramazansadair, a student from Bam, lost her father in the quake. She says people ignored the initial quakes despite earthquake awareness programs at school.
"I don't forget those earthquake maneuvers which were conducted at schools, but they were not taken seriously by the teachers and students," she said. "For some students they were just a laughing matter."
Mansoor Sadeghizadeh, a teacher from Bam, said many in the community simply ignored the dangers, at great cost.
"Lack of awareness and lack of accepting reality in spite of experiencing three pre-shakes at night, people and students have not left their houses. This is a question mark and the houses, clay or normal brick, again they stay in their houses. Why? What does it prove? It means that awareness is very low. People are not aware. People have not accepted natural hazard," said Sadeghizadeh.
Raman Letchumanan, head of environment and disaster management at the Association of South East Asian Nations insists education is necessary.
"Disaster risk reduction is a major global concern. We need to make use of the power of knowledge and education to build vigilance of our local communities," said Letchumanan. "Educating children at school will not only help them to be better prepared to face hazards but they could also be an effective agent to create awareness among adults, families, and their communities."
Disaster relief organizations recognize that being prepared can reduce the loss of life. They are keen to build on the use of schools in vulnerable areas to further limit death tolls and to help communities rebuild after disaster has struck.