Living in the shadow of danger in the Phillippines

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ALBAY PROVINCE, Philippines, 24 December 2009 - At the ringing of the bell, staff, students and their parents at the San Jose Elementary School know exactly what to do. They have practiced this drill before and know that in this disaster-prone corner of the Philippines, it is an exercise that could one day save lives. For behind this school, shrouded in mist and steam, is the Mount Mayon volcano - a permanent reminder of potential danger.

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While students file outside into the yard, some of the children carry books and teaching materials to a safe room. They then simulate how they would be evacuated if this was a real emergency.

In a specially-built block of classrooms, the 'evacuees' set about removing partitions, desks and chairs to create a roomy space. This block was built with UNICEF's help as an evacuation centre in times of emergency.

Despite the disruption, the school continues operating.

"We have to make some alternatives," said Principal Adelia B. Vibar. "We can hold classes for local students in the morning, and the newcomers having classes in the afternoon."

Living in the shadow of danger

Ms. Vibar is able to talk from experience. Apart from the threat of eruptions or landslides of unstable volcanic ash dislodged by torrential rains, this province of Albay is also prone to devastating typhoons that sweep in from the Pacific Ocean.

The most devastating storm in recent memory happened with Typhoon Reming in 2006.

Ayn Realasa, 14, remembers it well. "Our roof was blown off," she recalled. "We thought it was the end, but we recovered."

As a student representative on her Disaster Risk Reduction Council, Ayn has a key role to play in preparing fellow students at Marcial O. Ranola Memorial High School (MORMS) for the next emergency.

First-aid instruction

As part of a disaster preparedness programme, Ayn and her team regularly give first aid instruction to the other students, knowing one day that knowledge may help relieve suffering among their families and neighbours, or even save a life.

The instruction is lively and good humoured. A show of hands solicited by Arnaldo Arcadio, a UNICEF consultant on Education in Emergencies, shows that nearly all staff and students here have had to live through a life-threatening typhoon.

"The hazards will always be there," he said, after the session with students was over. "But if we have an informed student body, I'm sure we will be able to minimize the effects of these disasters."

Working together to identify dangers

Supported by UNICEF, the local non-governmental organization TABI organizes a number of initiatives in Albay's schools. Back at San Jose Elementary School, Antonette Liquigan, 11, leads a student group who identify potential hazards around the school from an abandoned classroom to the busy main road outside the school gates.

After completing another successful tour of the school grounds with her team, she said, "I'm happy that I get to help children and that I can keep them safe."

The focus of TABI's work with the local community is self-reliance, knowing that in times of emergency they may only have each other for support.

"When government is not available, what we have are the children," explained TABI coordinator Maricris Binas. "What we have is the local community."

These programmes and investments in education have proved their worth in building a resilience in the community and shaping a new generation of leaders for a more sustainable future.