In response to a year of unusually severe natural disasters, UNICEF asked several country offices to itemize, as accurately as possible, the effect on education.
"As upheavals in nature become more frequent and intense," UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said, "there is an urgent need to develop special contingencies to protect education when catastrophes strike. The greatest risk to a child's prospects for completing an education is an extended period when there is simply no school - and interruption that reinforces pressures to drop out entirely."
Last week, UNICEF launched its annual State of the World's Children report, which this year analyzed the status of education worldwide. Ms. Bellamy stated that the recent devastation of school facilities was an unanticipated, added burden on a global system that is already severely limited in its capacity to meet the right of all children to basic education.
China was hardest hit, according to UNICEF, with the worst floods in four decades along the Yangtze River basin. More than nine million children were affected by the disaster, which damaged or destroyed 48,766 schools. The estimated dollar value of the destruction is US$1.242 billion.
Also hard hit was Bangladesh, where the government estimates that 14,000 schools were destroyed or severely damaged. The monsoon season there lasted three times longer than normal, leaving millions without food or shelter and susceptible to water-borne disease.
"There is a terrible synergy in this," Ms. Bellamy observed. "Bangladesh already faces formidable challenges to education. For example, only 14 per cent of girls are enrolled in secondary school. The recent destruction of schools there only multiplies the effects of an already desperate situation."
Several other countries also suffered significant school damage and destruction during the year. Torrential rains from October 1997 to January 1998 flooded most of central and south Somalia, particularly the Juba valley, damaging or destroying at least 100 schools.
And in September 1998, the Dominican Republic was hit by Hurricane Georges. A total of 1,419 schools were affected; the estimated cost of rebuilding them is US$20 million.
Figures on school destruction in the Central American nations ravaged by Hurricane Mitch are not yet available. But Ms. Bellamy, who travelled in late November to Honduras and Nicaragua, said the rebuilding of the educational infrastructure should be high on the list of priorities throughout the region.
Repairing the infrastructures of hard-hit developing countries will require tremendous international commitment, according to Ms. Bellamy. UNICEF is primarily concerned, as an advocate for children, that young people's needs are not left behind in decision-making about rebuilding. Schools must be a top priority, she said.
She said international financial institutions and donor governments are key to the massive rebuilding effort that is required. She hailed a recent announcement by the World Bank of a US$200 million credit to Bangladesh for fast-track emergency flood recovery. Among other things, the loan will help finance import costs associated with restoring damaged infrastructure.
Ms. Bellamy added that UNICEF is offering on-the-ground expertise and help, particularly in the area of psycho-social services to children traumatized and dislocated by 1998's natural disasters. This is in addition to UNICEF's ongoing partnerships with governments and non-governmental organizations to help meet children's basic health, nutrition, water and sanitation needs.
"1998 will go down in history as a year when acts of nature closed school doors to millions of children," Ms. Bellamy said. "It is hoped that 1999 will be a year of unprecedented global partnership to restore life and learning to those same children."
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