Urban Disaster Risk Reduction – the case for civil protection skills

More and more often disasters affect urban populations in developing countries. There are simply more people at much higher density in cities and towns than in rural areas. And the poorest often live in inadequate housing or in unsuitable locations (prone to flooding or landslides etc.) because these are most affordable.

The aid community has understood this, and there is now a lot of practical work and thinking about how best to respond to disasters in urban areas. This addresses primarily the post-disaster response from the outside, and not necessarily how the people having to live in these areas can practice better disaster risk reduction.

At the same time, however, there are efforts to strengthen the resilience of these communities. A good way to do this is through educating children. DRR is now integrated to some extent in many school curricula in poor and middle-income countries at risk, although to different levels. A study last year by UNICEF and UNESCO in thirty countries shows that most often disaster-related teaching is most commonly found in the natural science, the geography, and the social science cluster of subjects. Only in two cases Disaster Risk Reduction was a dedicated subject, and only four countries have actual practical skills building in the curriculum, with disaster risk reduction being under Life Skills or even a dedicated civil protection subject as is the case in Cuba.

Much can be said for the latter, unfortunately rare way of approaching this. Coming from a country (Germany) with a strong culture of volunteer civil protection myself I firmly believe in the value of having a sizeable proportion of the community trained as fire fighters, first aiders, or civil protection volunteers. This to a large extent is driven by history, but has resulted in a comparatively high readiness of the general population for natural disasters. The severe and widespread floods a few months ago are a case in point – they were not simply managed well because Germany has the financial resources, they were mostly managed well because it can mobilise local volunteers almost instantly and for protracted periods.

While this is an example from a highly developed country, I would like to come back to Cuba. Cuba, a middle-income country at the lower end of the spectrum, has a similar level of readiness and preparedness for natural disasters, and has as a consequence dealt much better with recent tropical storms than most of its neighbours. Critics will point out that Cuba is also not necessarily a free society, but from what little I can see that doesn’t mean that the efforts that the country puts into civil protection (including a dedicated training period in schools) are necessarily forced upon the population.

The bottom line, and the argument I would like to make with this post, is that there is value in early and widespread civil protection training. If kids grow up knowing how best to respond when disasters typical for their environment hit, their communities are more resilient for it, and likely less lives or property are lost. Because it doesn’t matter how good the outside response is, and how much better international aid organisations are now geared towards urban disasters, by the time they arrive a lot already has to be done by the communities themselves. Coping starts immediately, and it makes a big difference when there are people around who can deal with the basic challenges until outside aid arrives.

I therefore think that we should invest much more in training urban communities in poor countries in dedicated civil protection skills, maybe to the extent of establishing organised structures. This could be through the existing Red Cross / Red Crescent Societies. This can and should start in schools, because as we know from life skills education, kids can make a lot of difference at home and in their community with what they learn in school.

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