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Disaster survival school lessons could save thousands of children's lives

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The lives of thousands of children in countries hit by the 2004 tsunami could be saved in the future if every school child was taught simple lessons about how to survive a disaster, such as how to swim or how to identify escape routes.

Following the Indian Ocean disaster that killed 260,000 people, Sri Lanka and two tsunami-affected states in India have already made such lessons part of the curriculum. In India's Tamil Nadu state, children's survival lessons already helped to save lives during Cyclone Nisha in 2008.

Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the tsunami, we are calling for survival lessons to be made part of the school curriculum in every disaster-prone country.

More than a third of all those killed in the 2004 tsunami were children. The children who were killed were smaller and weaker than their parents and were too scared and confused to find a safe place when the wave came. Many of the children that were killed were simply unable to run or swim to safety. If children had been taught how to swim or that they should run to higher ground in such an emergency, many lives could have been saved.

Gareth Owen, Save the Children's Emergencies Director, said: "We've come a long way since the tsunami five years ago. One of the most important lessons that the tsunami taught the world was the need to teach children, who are the most vulnerable in any emergency, what to do if a natural disaster strikes. Simple activities like mapping the safe places in their village, taking swimming lessons or running evacuation drills can save lives.

"We now need world leaders to make a real commitment to protecting children from the devastating effects of natural disasters by making sure every child knows what to do in an emergency."

Vital role for children in tsunami-affected countries

Children can play a vital role in protecting the rest of their villages from disaster. In November 2008, children given disaster survival lessons in India's Tamil Nadu state were able to warn everyone in their village of Nagapattinam that Cyclone Nisha was coming. As the storm loomed, children took to the streets with a megaphone to alert villagers and were not deterred when adults reprimanded them for being out in the rain. Later once adults had verified that the storm was headed toward them, the community were able to evacuate quickly and safely.

Children living in tsunami-affected countries are still at a high risk of being caught up in a future emergency as the region is home to some of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. In the five years since the tsunami 75 natural disasters have hit in Indonesia, 89 in India, 20 in Thailand, and 11 in Sri Lanka.

Preparing for disasters will become even more vital all over the world as weather-related natural disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity, partly due to climate change. The average number of natural disasters has increased from 200 a year in the 1980s to more than 400 per year now. This is predicted to increase by as much as 320 percent in the next 20 years and we estimate that within the next decade, 175 million children per year will be affected by these disasters.