Disaster Risk Reduction and Rio+20

Children in Vietnam participate in an exercise to map hazards around their schools. Photo: PLAN Vietnam / Tamara Push


By Antony Spalton and Lisa Guppy

Over the last twenty years, disasters have affected up to 4.4 billion people and have cost around $US 2 trillion. Women and children are 14 times more likely to die than men during a disaster, and typically the poorest and most vulnerable children suffer the highest disaster risk and the worst disaster impacts.

Post-disaster effects on children include psychological trauma; diseases from malnutrition, dirty water and bad sanitation; interrupted or even lost education; and dangerous living conditions.

This is why UNICEF does so much work to reduce the impact that disasters have on children in the first place.

There are no truly ‘natural’ disasters. In fact, while a hazard such as a storm or earthquake may be natural, the severity of the impact is determined by the exposure and the vulnerability of the community it hits. Put simply this means that the poorest and most vulnerable people, who invariably end up living in exposed regions such as coasts, remote rural areas or unplanned urban settlements, bear the brunt of floods, drought, earthquakes and other hazards. They are, as we say, at the greatest risk.

However, risk can be reduced. Local people as well as governments, the UN and community groups have a role to play. In 2011, UNICEF, UNISDR, and key NGO partners worked with 600 children in 21 countries to find out what children consider as the priorities to make them and their communities safe. Children wanted safely constructed schools; systems in place to reduce violence and abuse – especially for girls – after a disaster; access to knowledge and information on risk and the opportunity to participate in decisions that affect their own safety at school and at home.

In Madagascar, which is high on the list of countries at risk from climate change, some of these top needs are being answered in ‘child and eco-friendly schools.’ Children not only plan for and practice emergency drills to avoid the worst seasonal floods and storms, but they also learn about their environment and get to work in a sustainable and safe school made from low-cost local materials. Partly due to this, since 2006 no children have died in a school setting as a result of floods and storms in Madagascar.

World leaders are now meeting in Rio to talk about the future of our planet. While development conferences can seem like a lot of hot air, an unsustainable future will lead to more risks for children. We need to make sure that agreements reached at Rio+20 not only recognize disaster impacts on development but commit all of us to work with children and young people to reduce risks in the first place.

As Brittany Trilford, a child from New Zealand, said at the Rio+20 opening ceremony: “We are here to solve the problems that we have caused as a collective, to ensure that we have a future.”


Antony Spalton and Lisa Guppy are disaster risk reduction specialists at UNICEF. The views expressed in this blog are theirs and do not necessarily represent UNICEF’s positions.


Changing Planet