By Dizery Salim
GENEVA, 10 November 2011
– Eighteen countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have agreed to tighten up on school safety while also integrating disaster risk reduction into the school curriculum, following high-level talks on education in Panama City.
Between 1970 and 2009, over 32,000 schools in South America were damaged or destroyed by disasters caused by earthquakes, floods, landslides, strong winds and other types of natural hazards, according to data culled by the UN disaster reduction office for the 2011 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction.
In the Caribbean, 500,000 students had their education disrupted between 2000 and 2008, and schools were damaged from their use as shelters after a disaster, said the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
These stark facts propelled the decisions taken by education ministers and senior officials at the Latin American Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in the Education Sector, held in Panama from 12 to 14 October 2011.
In a joint declaration, those government representatives stressed the negative effect of recurring disasters on a nation’s education system, which they said could have “a devastating impact on school infrastructure, teaching activities and, in general, on education opportunities for children, adolescents and youth.”
Pledging to form the world’s first region-wide “Thematic Platform” for disaster risk management on education, they agreed that countries in the region should have policies to evaluate and improve existing educational infrastructure, and that new school buildings in the region should be built according to risk management standards and codes.
“[We] believe that education in disaster situations has the potential to save lives by providing safe spaces for learning, and support, structure and hope to people,” delegates said in the declaration. “[Education enables] them to make the necessary decisions for survival and caring for themselves and others.”
Tom Hockley, head of the Regional Office Support and Coordination Unit at UNISDR, noted it was the first time that high level officials from an entire region have committed, in writing, to include risk management in the school curriculum while also pushing for a policy of safer schools.
The declaration was signed by the Ministers of Education of the Government of Belize, Ecuador, Venezuela and Guatemala, and representatives of the Ministries of Education from Argentina, Costa Rica, Colombia, Cuba, Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The conference jointly organized by the Panama government, UNISDR, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), UN Children's Fund UNICEF, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, Plan International, Save the Children, the Inter-Agency Network of Education in Emergencies (INEE), the USAID’s Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA/USAID), and the Refugee Education Trust (RET).