“I lost my grandparents in the Tohoku tsunami. But I don’t want other children to lose their relatives in future tsunamis,” said 12-year-old Ryusei.
These simple but strong words struck the audience at a symposium commemorating the three-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami on 27 March 2014. The Tohoku earthquake was one of the most powerful ever recorded. “For me, this feeling is the foundation of disaster risk reduction,” Ryusei continued. “That is why I decided to get involved in the community rebuilding project in my town.”
Ryusei comes from Sendai City in the Tohoku region. He was one of the 12 child participants at the symposium, which was hosted by UNICEF Japan. The event, under the theme ‘Rebuilding Communities Together With Children’ highlighted the importance of listening to children’s voices in preparing communities for future disasters.
I am a UNICEF emergency specialist for East Asia and the Pacific. Listening to Ryusei, I thought about my recent mission to the Philippines to help affected communities recover from Typhoon Haiyan. The Philippines is now tackling the long and challenging process of rebuilding, and UNICEF is helping to ensure that communities become more resilient. The aim is to help them be less prone to suffering and destruction, even when the next disaster strikes.
Building resilient communities has to involve children. Globally, 50-60 per cent of people affected by disasters are children. Poor communities are particularly vulnerable as disasters exacerbate existing poverty and inequality. Listening to children’s voices is important because disasters affect them disproportionately, with potentially detrimental impact on their long-term development.
In Tohoku, the local government consulted communities and, importantly, children during reconstruction process. Special conferences and meetings were organized to gather children’s opinions, for example about school constructions. This is precisely what UNICEF has been emphasizing at the country level as the key to building resilience of people and the institutions that serve them.
The UN estimates that 175 million children are affected by natural hazards every year. Eleven out of the 20 most disaster-prone countries are in the Asia and Pacific region. Ryusei’s words reminded me yet again why reducing disaster risks for children is, and should be, everyone’s business.
At the meeting in Tokyo, I was asked to talk about UNICEF’s strategies and approaches to disaster risk reduction. My main message to the audience was that listening to children’s perspectives and addressing their needs and vulnerabilities should be at the heart of preparing for disasters. But Ryusei’s words expressed everything – and more – that I wanted to describe, which is “Disaster Risk Reduction FOR Children, and WITH Children.”
Mioh Nemoto is UNICEF Emergency Specialist for East Asia and the Pacific