Last March, when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck Kamaishi Higashi Junior High School, in Iwate Prefecture, on the Pacific coast, a 3rd year student promptly opened a window to secure the evacuation route for his classmates and then hid under his desk.
When the tremors stopped, the teacher shouted: “Run.” All 222 students took to their heels and ran to higher ground where they were joined by another 361 students from a neighbouring primary school. Some of the High School children took the small kids by the hand and comforted them.
There was general agreement that they were still not out of harm’s way and they all moved to a higher location where there was housing for the elderly. In total, the children ran about one kilometre before reaching a safe location. Five minutes later both the primary and the high schools were swept away by the tsunami.
The teachers confirmed that all 562 students who attended school on that day were safely evacuated.
In the course of interviews conducted with more than 600 children in 21 countries to develop the Children’s Charter for Disaster Risk Reduction, several children highlighted their belief that children have the right to participate and to access information they need when threatened by a disaster.
According to the Charter, “Children are ready and willing to participate in measures to tackle disaster risks and climate change – they want to help disseminate key messages and protect their communities as well as themselves.”
The case of the children at Kamaishi Higashi Junior High School reflects how lives can be saved when this is applied in practice. The students had learned that it is impossible to know when tsunamis hit after an earthquake so they always need to run as fast as possible to a high location without waiting for a teacher to tell them, to avoid any delays in evacuating the school premises.
As in many parts of the Japan, the students benefitted from the experiences of their elders who had lived through previous tsunami events and had watched videos which conveyed the full scale of the threat posed by tsunamis to coastal communities. In the case of Kamaishi Higashi Junior High School, the school curriculum includes disaster risk reduction classes for one hour per week and drills three times per year.
In contrast the majority of children spoken in the preparation of the Children’s Charter, said they feel completely cut off from any information regarding disasters. One child from Mozambique said: “Adults do not listen to what we say.” While another child from the Dominican Republic said: “I am part of the Emergency Committee that has been created in the community. Our goal is to reduce the disaster risk by implementing the principles of the Community Emergency Plan.”