b) Preparing for extreme weather events The urban poor are resourceful and experienced at coping with multiple daily challenges. In the face of repeated storms, floods and other events, however, their resourcefulness can be tested to the extreme. A woman from the Alaja slum in Accra, Ghana, for instance, describes the situation she faces every time there is heavy rain, an event that has happened more and more frequently in recent years:
“When the rain starts falling abruptly we turn off the electricity meter in the house. We climb on top of our wardrobes and stay awake till morning. Our house was built in such a way that ordinarily water should not flood our rooms, but this is not so. Our furniture has been custom made to help keep our things dry from the water. For instance, our tables are very high and so also are our wardrobes, they are made in such a way that we can climb and sit on top of them. These measures are adaptive strategies as old as I can recollect. I have two children but because of the floods myfirst child has been taken to Kumasi to live with my sister in-law.” 211
Although urban areas with their concentrations of people and wastes may be especially at risk from extreme events, they also have a greater potential for effective preparation (and response) measures because of the lower per capita costs of establishing early warning systems and responses to imminent disaster. Where children are concerned this may mean shifting the point at which an imminent event is considered to be a potential disaster.
Health and safety as a focus of preparation
Wherever possible children should be taught basic survival skills. In flood prone areas, for instance, they should learn how to swim. In any area at risk of disaster, they should be familiar with evacuation routes – which should be designed with the capacity of children and caregivers in mind (as well as that of the elderly and those with disabilities.) They should also learn about the potential hazards in case of extreme events, knowing what to avoid. Measures can be taken to diminish the risk of separation of family members. It is advised, for instance, that children be taught early how to identify themselves and their parents, that they carry self-identification, and that parents carry pictures of children.212 Families can also discuss strategies for avoiding separation, such as establishing pre-arranged rendevous points. Such measures may be considered anxiety provoking for children. However, if children feel they have the knowledge and skills to cope better with events, this is more likely to reduce anxiety.
Family and community coping strategies
In their account of people’s adaptation strategies in the face of imminent flooding in a number of African cities, Douglas and colleagues note the scarcity of community-wide responses or coordinated measures. People by and large described actions which were taken on a household by household basis.213In El Salvador too, most of the measures taken to reduce risks were found to be carried out individually. Far from generating joint responses, the threat of disaster was found in this case more likely to be a cause for increased tensions among neighbours.214 The very common phenomenon of household-by-household responses to risk reduction can end up increasing the overall level of risk. In Saint Louis, Senegal, for instance, large parts of the city are at risk of serious flooding. This risk is increased by the widespread practice of dumping waste in the streets, thereby blocking drainage channels. In addition, many families attempt to protect their own property by constructing flood defences and embankments from household waste – thus in effect causing waste to be spread throughout a community when flooding occurs. The resulting increase in sanitation-related illness has, of course, the most serious consequences for children. Saint Louis, however, with support from the NGO ENDA, is addressing this problem by supporting the dissemination of information, making training available, and strengthening cooperation among all stakeholders.215
Children’s routines as part of preparedness
Extreme events, by their nature, upset routines and regular activities. It is unrealistic to expect that children can be protected from this reality. However, preparations for extreme events can place greater priority on ensuring that children’s lives will be minimally disrupted. For instance, when sites are selected for emergency shelter, as far as possible schools should not be the first choice, unless they are the only sizable public building around. As mentioned before, education for children in Saint Louis was reduced to a few months a year because of this practice. Where this is a repeated problem, concerted measures might be taken to identify alternative sites – either for temporary shelter or for ad hoc classrooms.
Disaster preparedness, in places at risk, can also become part of children’s regular activities, as will be described below.
Involving children in disaster preparation
In the Philippines one of the key lessons learned in an effort to mainstream a community-based disaster risk management project into city good governance was the importance of including children to ensure that their needs were met. 216
There are numerous accounts of children being constructively involved in risk assessment and reduction, for instance in such activities as mapping out and helping to create evacuation routes. Plan International describes the sophistication and wide ranging nature of children’s responses, when they are given the chance: “In the consultations, the children were given the opportunity to discuss how they and their communities can be better prepared for future disasters, including tsunamis. They are very aware of the risks but also are convinced that more lives can be saved if they are prepared…Their extensive ideas on preparedness include the development of warning systems, efficient evacuation plans and families having an awareness of potential disasters, with common medicines and important documents on hand. Some of their ideas link to environmental sustainability and the reduction of risk through appropriate construction methods, planting of trees and protecting the mangroves. Children’s consideration of protection includes older people, younger children, disabled people and minority groups; and their ideas about saving to be prepared for future disasters suggest a natural resilience that should be encouraged.” 217 Plan notes that the full potential of children’s constructive involvement in risk reduction measures is seldom explored: “The theory … that disaster risk reduction strategies must be based on participatory principles, is well established. We are concerned, however, based on our research into the response to the tsunami, that the mind-set of those who will put this theory into practice does not yet extend to a genuine integration of children and young people into plans for disaster response, recovery and risk reduction.”218 Rather than adding to stress, an appropriate level of involvement can help reduce it, giving children a sense of competence and control where they might otherwise feel helpless.
c) Responding to the immediate losses, costs and threats following extreme weather events Extreme weather events, whether on a large or smaller scale, can result in substantial losses, costs and disruptions in all areas of life, as well as threats to health and safety. Rebuilding can be a long term process, and interim responses are needed to help families and communities cope with the immediate aftermath – whatever the scale of the event. Most of the material below pertains to emergency responses in the wake of higher magnitude disasters. There is no intent here to minimize the needs after smaller scale events – but, as in the case of larger events, these must be in response to an assessment of the damages and immediate needs.
Maternal and child health care and nutritional supplementation may be among the first supports set up in the immediate aftermath of disaster, and in this sense young children and the caregivers may be comparatively well served, especially after larger events. But health goes beyond the availability of health services, and the level of safety and environmental health in post disaster situations is often appalling. The protection of child health must be more broadly defined in these situations, as in poor urban communities generally, to ensure environments that do not call for superhuman efforts on the part of caregivers. Relatively simple measures can make a big difference in helping caregivers protect their children’s health. In a Malawi refugee camp, for instance, the provision of covered pails with spouts was found to reduce fecal coliform levels in stored water by 69 percent.219 However, it’s critical to pay attention to local perceptions of workable solutions. In this same camp, a less expensive option would have been the use of chlorination. But this was unpopular among residents and so was not found to be a useful solution.
Awareness of the heightened potential for injury is also critical after an extreme event, especially where children are concerned. A careful assessment of the post-disaster area can result in the avoidance of cuts, falls, electric shocks and other injuries from unfamiliar hazards. Adequate reproductive health services for women and young girls may also be a critical component of protection in the somewhat longer term, in the often dysfunctional and violent aftermath of disasters.220 Mental health is another important component. Although the construct of trauma may be inadequate for considering the impact of adversity for children (or adults), this does not mean that such an impact does not exist. It is important to look at the often considerable hardships that accompany events, and to determine within the local context how both children and adults can be helped to cope with them.
Given the risks related to some of the psychological supports for children that are offered in the context of emergencies, the Bernard van Leer foundation, which focuses on early childhood, offers additional practical guidelines to organizations seeking to provide psychosocial support programmes (see Box 7)
Box 8: Support for children after a disaster: advice from the Bernard van Leer Foundation
“As a general rule, the following should be avoided:
responses which label children as “traumatized” or “mentally ill” may have an unhelpful or stigmatizing effect. It is often more helpful to convey the idea that distressed children may be responding normally to abnormal events.
responses which isolate children from the many others who may have had similar experiences. Programmes which “treat” children away from their own environment (such as in “trauma centres”) are to be avoided, and treating children in institutional settings has the potential to be particularly damaging.
programmes which use methods that transgress cultural norms – for example encouraging children to discuss and express their feelings in cultures which do not sanction such behaviour.
allowing children to be interviewed, to “tell their story”, to researchers and journalists should be avoided: insensitive interviewing can easily cause secondary distress. The child’s best interest should be a guiding principle in all situations.”
Source: Mc Callinn, Margaret (2005) Guest editorial: Responses to young children in post-emergency situations, Early Childhood Matters (Bernard van Leer Foundation), 104, page 7.
Also very useful in this context are the standards presented by the Sphere Handbook, a basic humanitarian aid text on emergency response, which now include attention to the mental and social aspects of health following disasters.221 A child-focused review of the available evidence on the interventions described by the Sphere minimum standards provides a number of recommendations, which make it clear that support for the mental health of children involves, critically, support for a stable and functioning adult society and the maintenance of accustomed routines (Box 8). 222
Box 9: Recommendations for mental and social health following disasters based on the Sphere minimum standards
1. People have access to an ongoing, reliable flow of credible information on
the disaster and associated relief efforts.
2. Normal cultural and religious events are maintained or re-established (including
grieving rituals conducted by relevant spiritual and religious practitioners).
People are able to conduct funeral ceremonies
3. As soon as resources permit, children and adolescents have access to formal
or informal schooling and to normal recreational activities
4. Adults and adolescents are able to participate in concrete, purposeful,
common interest activities, such as emergency relief activities
5. Isolated persons, such as separated or orphaned children, child combatants,
widows and widowers, older people or others without their families, have
access to activities that facilitate inclusion in social networks
6. When necessary, a tracing service is established to reunite people and
7. Where people are displaced, shelter is organised with the aim of keeping
8. The community is consulted regarding decisions on where to locate religious
places, schools, water points, and sanitation facilities. The design of
settlements for displaced people includes recreational and cultural space
9. Professional treatment should be available for urgent psychiatric complaints, including pre-existing mental illness, as well as non-intrusive “first aid” support for those in acute distress. For protracted disasters a system of community-based psychological support should be established..
Source: Batniji, Rajaie, Mark van Ommeren and Benedetto Saraceno (2006) Mental and social health in disasters: relating qualitative social science research and the Sphere standard, Social Science and Medicine 62(8) 1853-1864
Strengthening families’ immediate capacity to cope
Many of the problems experienced after disasters are related to the way emergency and transitional assistance is delivered, and to the fact that people may feel little or no control over their lives. Not only do survivors generally have no role in decisions that affect them; much of the time they do not even know what decisions have been made. The resources, skills and strengths of communities are often overlooked in the rush to assess risks and needs. An array of NGOs can deliver various supports – in the emergency barracks described in Box 5 (Aceh), one organization provided water, another brought in food, another staffed a safe play area for children and another picked up waste. Residents were apparently reluctant to do anything for themselves for fear they would jeopardize some potential assistance. They were unwilling, for example, to repair shoddy and even dangerous construction because they saw it as the responsibility of the organization that had provided it. There appeared to be no coordination on the part of the various organizations with any resident group – no one even seemed clear whether any such group existed. A sense of helplessness and demoralization was pervasive. The fact that this was a “temporary” situation made it appear pointless to deal with the problems. This temporary situation, however, would end up being home to children for more than two critical years of their lives.
In sharp contrast was an emergency camp in Thailand, set up by the highly regarded Community Organizations Development Institute, or CODI, an independent public organization that carries out a number of government programmes. From the very day after the disaster, when this camp was first opened, residents were encouraged to organize themselves by alley, with each alley providing a representative to a resident committee, which then served as the gatekeeper for all NGOs coming to provide services. Camp residents negotiated with them and determined actively how best to make use of the assistance that was available. Although here too, residents waited many months for final relocation, the mood was very different and people had taken a constructive role in improving and maintaining the camp.223 The difference for children is clear – not only in terms of their health and safety, but in terms of the level of reassurance and stability provided by the presence of adults who are active, engaged and in charge.
Approaches that encourage active engagement and community control in the aftermath of disaster have huge implications for children – as well as for more general recovery. Psychosocial support sessions, however effective, cannot replace functioning families and communities. But the genuine involvement of those affected in the aftermath of a disaster, children or adult, is surprisingly rare given the rhetoric that exists on the value of such participation. This is a function, in part, of the push to accomplish a great deal in a short time, and the sense that involving people will undermine efficiency. As is clear from the CODI example in Thailand, efficiency can actually be enhanced when people are engaged in practical ways. But participation is too often perceived by organizations as just one more thing to do in an already overwhelming situation. It is viewed, in other words, as an additional project to burden staff, rather than a means of getting things done. The superficial consultation that sometimes occurs may have more to do with donor requirements for participation than with the intent of actually sharing control with community and drawing on their knowledge and strengths. In defense of over-burdened organizations, it must also be acknowledged that facilitating and supporting truly constructive community engagement, especially with communities that may have little practice with joint decision making, can take skill and experience, as well as genuine committment. In many cases, those working in the field in this setting, hired suddenly in the aftermath of disaster, may have little or no understanding of this approach, let alone experience.
Although the same level of organization will not be necessary in the case of smaller scale events, the same principle applies – involving those affected as soon as possible in making decisions about their needs and priorities is a critical way of ensuring that adults regain control of their own lives, and, by extension, are better able to provide the care and support their children need.
In the aftermath of both large and small disasters, one response on behalf of children that should certainly be taken is to ensure that schools and early childhood centres are up and running as soon as possible. The benefits of supportive institutions at the community level for children whose households and communities are disorganized and overwhelmed have been well documented. The availability of early childhood programs, for instance, can help to reduce parental stress as well as providing young children with a safe, structured daily routine and valuable contact with other children.224 Schools can provide the same kind of routine, sanctuary and interest for older children – providing them with an identity as students, and a chance to maintain and develop their skills with an eye to the future, as well as the contact with peers that is so critical to them.225 It should be kept in mind, however, that the internationally accepted minimal standards for education in the context of emergency and disaster226 may in fact exceed by a good deal the standards that are met in most low income countries at the best of times. If the emergency response effort can include work to strengthen local school systems, so much the better. Every effort should be taken to use this opportunity for involving children and communities in considering how schools can become more welcoming and vital centres for local learning.
A related issue is adequate space for children to do homework. Especially in overcrowded emergency and transitional housing, it may be hard for children to find a place that is quiet and well-lit enough to focus on their studies. Provision of a shared place that meets these requirements can help ensure that children remain in school.
Other helpful responses, especially for older girls, involve working with them on ways to ensure that they feel safe from harassment or abuse. This may involve lighting the way to the toilets, or finding people who are willing to monitor the route or accompany children and adolescents. It can also mean finding ways to ensure their privacy while they are bathing or dressing. This would be welcome for women as well.
An increasingly common NGO and agency response for children in the context of emergency is the provision of “safe play areas” or “child friendly spaces” especially for younger children.227 The rationale is an excellent one. In the broader efforts to shelter people and provide basic amenities, obstructions to play are unlikely to be viewed as a priority. In the chaos after a disaster, it can be critical to provide some safe place for children to go to, and especially to ensure that they have a chance to relieve their distress and anxiety through play with other children. “Safe play areas” are generally raised, covered platforms, quickly erected, with a lockable room for storing toys and other materials; they may also be large tents or other solutions. Generally they are open for set hours during the day, with a staff member available to work with the children. Although these safe spaces are designed to fill an important need in the chaos of an emergency, they can, by default, turn into a longer term solution as the post-disaster scenario drags on. When adults feel their children’s needs are being met in this way, it can remove one important incentive for addressing the often appalling conditions within the larger local environment. It’s an illusion to assume, however, that a few supervised hours a day within these small covered spaces is any kind of substitute for a safe, varied, stimulating neighbourhood. Care should be taken to ensure that safe play areas are seen as a short term solution – or else that their function is just one component of the necessary attention to the local environment for children. Possibly the organizations that support these interventions could also encourage and facilitate community meetings on how best to make the more general common space safe and pleasant for children’s use.
Especially where older children are concerned, the aftermath of disaster may involve the loss of the kinds of routine activities that make them feel like competent useful people. Mann has pointed out that in refugee situations, for instance, restoring a sense of normalcy may depend in part on recreating the daily chores and responsibilities that are an integral part of the lives of children in many low income communities.228 Children’s desire and capacity to play an active, competent role is especially relevant in the post disaster context, as is discussed next.
Respecting children’s capacity for active involvement
Where children are concerned, because of the rights orientation of most child-focused organizations, there may in fact be more opportunity for participation than is true for adults, and in this sense, children are perhaps better served – at least in the context of large scale disasters. But this, again, is little guarantee of the kind of genuine engagement that many older children in particular are likely to feel the need for. Not all opportunities for “participation” are equally worthwhile. Many children have noted their impatience, for instance, with having endlessly to share their stories. As a child from a group of 7 to 12 year olds in Thailand noted, “People very frequently asked children the same questions. These people were many and came from many organisations. We felt bored and did not want to answer. But for the school’s sake, and fame, we had to answer.”229
On the other hand, an authentic experience of engagement can be valuable to all. The work of scholars from the refugee studies centre at the University of Oxford have made a real contribution to understanding the potential role of children in these situations where adult roles and structures have become fractured. Guyot, for instance, describes how, in refugee camps in Africa, the involvement of young people “can transform the experience of displacement as entire communities benefit from the unique competencies young people carry with them, including effective coping mechanisms, adaptability, resourcefulness and their abilities to institute and secure positive change and self-protection. Active decisions made by children—how they organize themselves, the priorities they identify, the habits they maintain or choose to leave behind when entering the camp environment—have a major impact on the future development of the entire community.”230
Although children have the clear capacity to function independently, there can be practical advantages to encouraging the integration of children’s involvement with the involvement of adults, and this can be especially relevant in the context of a disaster response. The post disaster “dependency syndrome” is familiar to all who work in that world. Being among helpless, depressed adults is uncomfortable and disturbing for most children. In this context, for a project to call on children alone to make plans and decisions can be a reversal of the normal order – and at a time when people are especially anxious for things to return to normal. In the haste to set up psychosocial interventions for children, it can be easy to forget the importance for children of seeing their parents and neighbours as competent people who can take an active role in planning their lives and making decisions. Involving children and bypassing adults is not always a healthy way to support strong family and community relationships. This does not mean that all discussions and activities need to involve all age groups – but it can be helpful to ensure that there are plenty of chances to share perspectives and decide together on things that may affect everyone. 231
Access to relevant information is vital to feeling some measure of control over life. In the days after a major disaster, information can be critical for accessing available supports and materials. The Sphere Standards require that relief information be readily available to affected people after a disaster, but also that this information be understandable to a local 12 year old.232 This requirement – both the availability of information and its accessibility to those who need it – should be respected not only in the immediate relief period, but in preparation efforts as well and throughout the rebuilding process.