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Keeping children safe in disaster-prone Kyrgyzstan

The EU has been funding disaster preparedness initiatives across the country to mitigate this risk, especially in the education system, as school children are extremely vulnerable to earthquakes.
The EU has been funding disaster preparedness initiatives across Kyrgyzstan. Here, schoolchildren take cover under their desks as part of an earthquake simulation drill in a school. © EU/ECHO/Pierre Prakash.

Earthquakes are one of the most acute disaster risks in Kyrgyzstan. For many years, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations has been funding disaster preparedness initiatives across the country to mitigate this risk, especially in the education system, as school children are extremely vulnerable to earthquakes. At a school in the village of Amanbaevo, in the country’s northern Talas province, 1 200 girls and boys are taking part in an emergency exercise to prepare them for the worst.

Sven G. Simonsen, Communication Specialist at UNICEF Kyrgyzstan

By Sven G. Simonsen, Communication Specialist at UNICEF Kyrgyzstan

"Last year, we had a quite strong earthquake here," says Dinara Nuralieva, director at the school. "It taught us a lesson. There was panic, both among children and adults. We managed to evacuate the school, but it did not happen in an orderly way, as it should."

Earthquakes are common in Kyrgyzstan. Here, in Talas region, 13 earthquakes were registered in the last year. In previous decades, Kyrgyzstan has experienced earthquakes of magnitude 7.3 and higher.

A large-scale assessment supported by UNICEF has found that 85 per cent of education facilities exhibit low structural safety level. Should the worst happen, preparedness is key to keeping children safe.

Since last year’s incident, Nuralieva’s school has set up response committees to clarify who does what in case of emergencies; there is an assigned person who gives the alarm signal, who opens the entrances for evacuation, and so on. Importantly, the committees include not only teachers and other staff, but also pupils.

"We’re actively involving the children in emergency preparedness from an early age," Nuralieva says.

We meet Nuralieva at the end of a day when all the girls and boys here have just completed an emergency exercise, initiated by UNICEF and the local branch of the Ministry of Emergency.

The exercise, simulating an earthquake emergency, put into practice what the pupils have already been prepared for in theory.

“Now we all know how to act, and who will save our lives if there is an earthquake”, says 12-year-old Aida (far left), while participating in a drawing contest on the occasion of International DRR Day.

“Now we all know how to act, and who will save our lives if there is an earthquake,” says 12-year-old Aida (far left), while participating in a drawing contest on the occasion of International DRR Day. ©UNICEF Kyrgyzstan/2016/Sven G. Simonsen

"Now we all know how to act, and who will save our lives if there is an earthquake," says 12-year-old Aida.  "It was very interesting for all of us," she adds.

Even the youngest children have taken the safety messages to heart, assures Marina Sagazieva, one of the school’s teachers. "Yesterday when I came home from work, I found my eight year old niece lecturing her 74-year-old grandmother about what to do if there’s an earthquake, 'You have to get up and stand in the corner of the room, or hide under the table,' she told her!

The school already teaches children emergency awareness, but putting the theory into practice made this exercise particularly useful.

UNICEF Kyrgyzstan has been working with the European Commission for the last six years. Thanks to EU funding UNICEF has supported the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic on disaster risk reduction (DRR) in education, and child-centred disaster risk analysis.

The World Reconstruction Conference, taking place in Brussels on 6-8th June, will explore the link between education and post-disaster rebuilding. For more details click here.