Potkakhali, Bangladesh: It’s a few days now since Tropical Storm Mahasen made landfall over Potkakhali, a village in Barguna district in south Bangladesh. Compared with the death and destruction caused by Cyclone Sidr in 2007, which killed more than 3,500 people, the fury of this cyclone has been less devastating – in fact, one villager even used the word “kind” when referring to Mahasen.
But with wind speeds of up to 90kmh and heavy rains, Mahasen still left a trail of destruction. Local officials say that the storm destroyed or caused extensive damages to more than 45,000 houses as well as many schools, while 128,000 hectares of agricultural land are now submerged under water. Yet despite all this, there were just 45 deaths.
Crash course in disaster management
When our team from Plan International reached Potkakhali, we were welcomed by 30 children from Mim Abason, a local children’s group. They were there to tell us about the role they’ve played in disaster preparedness.
Leading the pack were 17-year-old Mukta and 14-year-old Mohammed. You may not be able to stop a disaster, but these children are proof that you can reduce the risks. The duo spoke with a sense of confidence and purpose and shared how they have been raising awareness of the importance of disaster preparedness. Folk songs and skits are used regularly, while mock drills help children understand how to respond to early warnings.
As one of their songs goes, “One flag is for cyclones that are less intense. Two flags are for category 4-6 cyclones and three flags is a signal to run to the cyclone shelter.”
Their activities in their communities have helped convince children and adults alike of the importance of evacuating to shelters, which was precisely what about a million people did as Mahasen made its final approach. Also important has been getting people to map the risks in their villages and develop actions to address them.
Plan and South Asia Partnership have been supporting disaster preparedness efforts like this in Potkakhali since 2011, with funding from the European Commission’s Humanitarian Office. Mahasen was a chance to put the skills everyone had learnt to the test.
Shelter from the storm
When the storm warning came, Mukta and her friends moved to the nearby shelter.
“We were there for two days and were listening to the radio,” she says. “We were also playing and singing.”
The children have also been trained in first aid. So I set a challenge for them by pretending I was drowning to see what they’d do. Immediately a group of four children swung into action. They turned me around, swiftly, carefully and without any hesitation, and then positioned my head, body and legs. The leader of the group then started giving me pressure pushes on my back. Full marks all round.
This week, world leaders, UN and international non-governmental organisations are assembling in Geneva under the auspices of UN Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction. The message from the children in Potkakhli to those who will be in Geneva is loud and clear: children must be at the centre of all disaster preparedness and risk reduction measures. Politicians and policymakers take note!
Edited version of this blog also appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News – Trust- https://news.trust.org/item/20130522062238-1igcv/