Flood levels have reached record highs in South Asia this year. Over 20 million people have been affected in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. More than one-third of Bangladesh was underwater.
Bangladesh and its people, however, are survivors.
Our landscape makes us prone to natural disasters, and over the years people have learned to adapt to it.
While the situation is the worst it has ever been, we are better equipped than we have ever been. This success can be credited to collaborative efforts by the government and civil society, which ensure shelter homes, pre-disaster preparedness, and early warning systems.
Floods and other climatic attacks are expected to worsen in our region, with Bangladesh listed as one of the top five countries most vulnerable to climate change. While we are resilient in terms of our homes and livelihoods, we need to start talking about less obvious effects, such as the interruption to education.
Schools are inundated and washed away by floods every year. The ones that remain open see massive declines in attendance.
Over 3,800 schools across 16 districts were closed this year due to flooding. Around 600,000 children may or may not come back to school. This has a range of dangerous effects that do not make it to the news, such as sharp rises in sexual assault and child marriage.
We believe that young people, often the most affected by disasters, can play a much more crucial role in disaster preparedness and response. Here are five ways that we could better use young people to tackle climate change:
1. Teaching young people to swim
Drowning is the leading cause of death for young people aged one to 17 years in Bangladesh, and is the reason behind almost half of the deaths of children between the ages of one and four -- more than measles, cholera, diarrhea, and pneumonia combined.
The government made swimming lessons compulsory for primary school children in 2015, but a lack of public swimming spaces makes this hard to regulate.
BRAC’s adolescent clubs train girls and boys to be professional swimmers using local ponds and rivers. In return, these swimmers become community swimming instructors for children between the ages of eight and 12.
So far, 120,000 children have learned to swim through this. We are currently working on using our experience to train children younger than eight. If this community-based approach is scaled nationally, we can stop one child disappearing under the water every 30 minutes.
2. Adding climate change to the curriculum
The curriculum in BRAC schools now includes climate change and disaster preparedness. Recent evidence tells us that our students not only learn for themselves, but also take the lessons back to their families and communities. Some government schools have recently introduced this in the curriculum, but this needs to be made effective at all primary and secondary schools across the country.
3. Safe spaces during disasters
A collaborative effort between the government, NGOs, and community can ensure that young people are at the heart of the response, removing mental pressure on parents so that they can concentrate fully on the disaster. Children should be immediately brought under the network of their lead volunteers once they are in safety. Their whereabouts need to be monitored at all times.
UNICEF has already introduced child-friendly spaces in certain flood-affected regions. BRAC, since last year, has followed the lead in setting up similar spaces for children. We saw the impact of these safe spaces in the psychological well-being of the children during Cyclone Roanu in May last year.
Children were kept safe from physical and psychological harm as they engaged in various activities such as painting, storytelling, and playing games. These activities kept them busy throughout the daytime, which under normal circumstances, would have been their school hours. Parents reported that the spaces allowed them to fully engage themselves in rehabilitative activities, knowing that their children were in safe hands.
As flood relief and donations begin to pour in, we have to ensure that there are separate provisions for children. They pay the heaviest price as they suffer from various health problems, often due a lack of nutritious food, which becomes a major reason for dropping out of school.
4. Going back into the classroom
Coming back to the classroom after losing valuables is not easy. This is where teachers can play a key role in becoming counsellors for children who are physically and emotionally vulnerable.
Over 3,800 schools across 16 districts were closed this year due to flooding
Children should be given the time to settle back into normalcy. It is imperative that we systematically train our teachers on post-disaster psychosocial engagement with children to help them cope with trauma. Teachers in disaster-affected regions can also become important resources of information about what the children went through, and the kind of support they need immediately. In addition, we need to immediately chalk out effective policies to recover the lost school hours, while ensuring it does not put too much pressure on students.
Remedial classes can be introduced. The head teachers and the local government representatives of the flood prone areas can begin discussion and preparation at least two months ahead of the monsoon season.
Plans need to be in place to ensure our future leaders don’t fall short on creativity and learning as a result of climate change.
5. Giving young people an active role in disasters
Children and adolescents can act as unofficial messengers before, during, and after disasters. Making them part of the process not only helps them cope with disasters, but also encourages them to be pro-actively involved in disaster preparedness.
Engaging young people as community volunteers is increasingly becoming popular practice in disaster risk reduction strategies. We have seen volunteers enthusiastically take up leadership roles during disaster-response drills.
Each volunteer can be assigned with the responsibility of a group of children. During disasters, these volunteers will be responsible for the children’s movement, and the difficulties they face. They can play an integral role in ensuring that they do not drop out of school.
The flooding this year was a strong reminder for Bangladesh, as a fast emerging middle-income country, that we are disaster-prone and will face some huge challenges to our development in the future. Let’s make some space for the new generation to contribute to what ultimately will be their generation.
We are only strong as a nation when we stand together.
Safiqul Islam is the director of BRAC’s education program. Sumaiya Haque is working as the external communication specialist for BRAC’s education program.