With extreme weather events increasing in their magnitude and frequency, it is critical to reduce the risk of exposure and vulnerability, especially in the education sector. Katharine Vincent (Kulima Integrated Development Solutions) and Shehnaaz Moosa (CDKN) spoke to Tumisang Thabela from Zimbabwe’s Department of Primary and Secondary Education, who shared lessons from cyclone Idai.
Despite having no coastline, Zimbabwe often experiences the impacts of extreme weather events associated with tropical cyclones from the Indian Ocean. This was the case in March 2019, with tropical cyclone Idai – one of the costliest cyclones to hit southern Africa.
Like other extreme weather events, tropical cyclones leave mass destruction in their wake – destroying buildings and roads, washing away crops and farmland and affecting many lives. National government-driven disaster management and civil protection committees rally around to provide immediate relief. But sectors have to take over the reins for the longer-term recovery.
How the education sector responded to tropical cyclone Idai
After tropical cyclone Idai, the education sector activated a multi-stakeholder “cluster” to facilitate effective response. With participation by government and development partners, the cluster acted as a coordination forum to ensure that available support makes it to all the areas that need it.
Mobile phone networks play a key role in rapid identification of needs. All heads of school received SMS-based short questionnaires where they can report damage to buildings, learning materials and lives. Using this information, cluster members coordinate their efforts on a geographical basis – where each organisation takes responsibility for a different area and addresses emerging needs.
Education sector needs after extreme weather events can vary significantly. As well as damage to buildings, teachers and learners alike bear the brunt of the shock and trauma that comes with exposure to flooding and high winds.
Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, Mrs Tumisang Thabela, highlights that this is an often-overlooked aspect of disaster response. “On visiting affected areas, I heard from one teacher who had watched his headmaster, wife and child being swept away by floodwaters in front of his eyes, and another who recounted how his house had taken 10 years to build but was washed away within seconds. We cannot underestimate the need for mental and psychosocial support for everyone who has lost loved ones and their property and possessions.”
There are also immediate practical needs. New schooling arrangements need to be made for displaced children. Those who have lost parents may need to be moved to boarding facilities, for which fees must be found. After tropical cyclone Idai teachers’ unions around the world and a few partners provided clothes and other essentials to some of the teachers.
Often the focus is on returning schools to full functionality as soon as possible. In Zimbabwe, schools are themselves organised in clusters of 5-7 schools in neighbouring areas. This can help with recovery because schools within a cluster can pool and share resources if necessary. For example one school may loan textbooks to another that may have had all of theirs destroyed.
From relief to rehabilitation – the longer-term recovery needs in the education sector
Where whole communities have been affected, the school building itself may have been used as a shelter for people whose homes have been destroyed. As the heart of the community, school buildings have often been reinforced in order that they can play this vital function to save lives. But with classrooms repurposed for domestic living, this can impede the return of learners to education.
After tropical cyclone Idai, Manicaland lost 40 days of teaching and learning from the storm itself. But then school reopening was further delayed by the need to find alternative accommodation for those who had been sheltering – and to repair and redecorate.
In the immediate aftermath of the tropical cyclone, food parcels and emergency assistance was made available. But the flooding of farmland threatened food security for the following months as harvests were lost. So for learners and teachers to have their nutritional needs met to be able to actively engage in education, there is need to work more closely with the Ministry of Lands, Fisheries, Water, Agriculture and Rural Resettlement.
Reducing future disaster risk
It is difficult to see the positives, but Mrs Thabela is able to find some. Exposure to extreme weather events makes people more aware of the risks of their environment.
“When another tropical cyclone comes, I would expect less destruction as people’s awareness is better. We have also worked through our schools to increase awareness of early warning systems and undertaken drills to practice evacuation and other risk reduction measures”, she says, adding “the sense of being in this together has also strengthened community solidarity and led to people working more closely together to solve problems”.
Tropical cyclone Idai also catalysed the coordination structures that have already proved effective in further risk reduction. The cluster system was reinvigorated in the face of exposure to Covid-19 in 2020, and similarly served an important function to coordinate and streamline support from various development partners.
“Building back better” in the education sector has enabled improvements. In one project, supported by the Global Partnership for Education, destroyed school buildings and ablution facilities in six cyclone-hit districts (in 139 schools) have been rebuilt to be more resilient and more inclusive, supporting girls and access by children in wheelchairs.
In another initiative, with support from the European Union, disaster preparedness, early response and access to inclusive education is being promoted in 250 schools across five districts of Manicaland and Matebeleland North Provinces. This builds on lessons from both tropical cyclone Idai and Covid-19, and includes facilitating access to community and home-based learning, through solar radios, offline programming and a variety of self-study materials, to minimise disruption.
Reducing risk of exposure and vulnerability to extreme weather events is critical when climate change is expected to increase their magnitude and frequency. The education sector in Zimbabwe is up to the challenge and making great progress.