Each year natural disasters exert a heavy toll on human life and property. In 1994, the United Nations estimated that, in the past 20 years, nearly three million lives have been lost to natural disasters, and some 800 million people have been affected. The figures are much higher if anthropogenic disasters are considered.
Fiji has seen many natural disasters, some very tragic and costly to the nation and community at large. Tropical cyclones, floods and drought are the main ones. In the past 37 years, Fiji reported a total of 124 natural disasters, affecting almost all parts of the country. Tropical cyclones accounted for 50 percent followed by floods at 33 percent and earthquakes at 8 percent. Since 1972, natural disasters have caused $667 million worth of devastation and affected almost half a million people. The catastrophes have crippled our rate of growth which has averaged 2.6 per cent over a 30-year period since 1970 compared to 9.7 per cent averaged in the first five years of the 1970s.(Prasad,B.2005). The drought in 1997-1998 affected 40,000 people and cost the nation over $120 million.
One sector that is always hit hard by natural disasters is the Education sector. The loss of a child's belonging such as text books, note books, stationery, uniform, etc. increases financial burden on poor families not to mention the trauma it imprints in the minds of children. Poor families are always hit hard and some struggle to put them back in schools. Some children never return to school after a disaster as families lose everything. The 1997-98 drought affected many schools in the Western Division with many schools reporting huge absenteeism as parents could not afford to send children to schools because of a decline in food, crops and source of income. Some schools and committees organized daily meals for children in order to allow them to continue with their education. A total of 137 schools were identified as the worst hit in drought-stricken areas(OHCA,1998). The events of 1997-98 may be forgotten and the threat from another drought may not be too far. The level of preparedness for disasters has been poor as small islands such as Fiji suffer increasing socio- economic costs.
Impact on Schools
Damage to schools is high as some school managements take for granted that their school buildings are safe and strong. It has proved otherwise as figures suggest that 138 schools alone were either partially damaged or completely destroyed in 2003(Cyclone Ami) in Eastern and Northern division costing $4.77million of damage.
Natural disasters cause physical damage to schools and sometimes the Ministry of Education defers school operation for a few days or weeks until repairs are complete and safe for children to return. Typically, schools have been used as evacuation centers and this causes further disruption to children's education. The reason for schools to be utilised as evacuation centres is because there are no community halls or safe centers in villages. School buildings are regarded as strong and safe. Buildings not affected are later utilized for the running of classes. This causes disruption to normal teaching and learning. Some schools erect temporary sheds to run classes. After Cyclone Ami, government erected temporary shelters for those schools which suffered serious structural damage to their buildings. Rural committee managed schools have a mammoth task to seek funding for repair works unless they have healthy school balance. Government assistance to schools in the past has been slow to arrive as many procedures, assessments and reports need to be followed.
Schools were affected in the following ways:
Ï Damage to buildings- roofs blown off, damage to windows, blackboard etc.
Ï Damage of classrooms through flood.
Ï Disruption and damage to water source.
Ï Damage to school quarters affecting teachers.
Ï Damage to specialised rooms such as computer labs, science laboratory, library, textbook room, agriculture room and equipment, staff room etc.
Ï Long delays in restoration of water, power and telephone services.
Ï Long delays to carry out timely repairs and maintenance because of a lack of funds.
Impact on Academic
All schools strive to produce high pass rates as it reflects the status of their school. Natural disasters have affected school results where children and schools are affected.
However, some schools have produced better results and this can be attributed to various factors such as scaling criteria utilized, brighter students in that year, hard work, commitment and resilience of students and teachers despite the obstacles, easier paper than previous year(s) etc. Given below is the analysis of result of my mini survey of school results of six schools in Vanua Levu.
The statistics also reveal that those schools which had a decline in exam result in 2003, picked up an increase in result a year later (except for one school which recorded a slight decline for FJC in 2004).
This implies that student's performance was indeed affected by the tropical cyclone.
The relationship of school results and natural disasters may be inconclusive for FJC but for FSLC, it is fairly clear.
However, it must be noted that academic performance in examination is not the only measure of a student's overall performance. With the scrapping of external examination up to Form Four level, the internal assessments will now be the yardstick and determinant for children's performance until they sit for an external exam at form 6 level.
Children were affected in the following ways:
nLoss of parental income derived mainly from farm.
nLoss of books, materials and stationery in flood and cyclone.
nDamage to house shifted family priority from children's education, fees, uniform, stationery etc. to rebuilding house and farm rehabilitation.
nDamage to roads, bridges, crossings and access to main roads meant more time taken to reach school.(some teachers also faced this problem).
nPoor diet resulting in absenteeism and sickness as crops were washed out.(Sickness also resulting from high dependence on processed food such as tinned fish, potatoes, noodles).
nAbsenteeism because of non-payment of school fees and inability to pay bus fares. (The problem of bus fare is not going to be a factor now as the government has initiated a free bus transport for school children. As for the school fees, while the government provides fee free education, schools do charge other fees such as building fee, sports fee, text book fee etc. to be paid by parents).
nOvercrowded classrooms and poor school facilities (damaged labs, computers, desks, unavailability of textbooks, etc).
nExcessively long delays in restoration of power supply. (In one area, FEA power was restored after more than 40 days.
nRain and potential for further flood after the cyclone meant that schools took precaution by early closure and parents keeping children at home for safety reasons until weather conditions normalised.
nPost-Ami trauma experienced by those children who lost close family member(s) or had real bad experience of the cyclone.
nDisruption to classes during repair of rooms, roofs etc and during cleanup.
nDisruption to classes due to teacher absenteeism and non availability of teachers.
It is extremely important that small islands take natural disasters seriously as it disrupts children's life and education. Schools need to be well prepared.
It is recommended that stakeholders relook at preparedness that will minimise losses and the huge damage incurred during each disaster.
School managements need to be more prudent in having healthy finance for the school so that repair works can be undertaken without much delay.
Schools also need to have educated people in their management board who are able to provide better advice and means of acquiring funding for schools for appropriate development and for difficult times. (Sometimes micro-politics by those in power with vested interests backed up by lousy teachers does not allow for vibrant people to be elected).
Schools must rely less on aid and assistance after disaster which does come sometimes but is not always timely. Overdependence on aid, assistance and handout is a sign of a weak society.
Timely and accurate reports must also be dispatched by schools to the Ministry of Education for efficient assistance.
The ministry must also provide necessary assistance and rehabilitation work without too much delay and bureaucracy. The current government seems to be working on cutting out bureaucratic norms in order to fast-track processes.
The Ministry must also consider a compulsory curriculum on natural disasters in schools.
NGOs that want to provide aid and assistance must collect first hand information from schools directly or from the Ministry of Education and provide relevant assistance on time for it to be worthwhile. NGOs must also discuss with schools on the requirements instead of dumping outdated and irrelevant materials to schools. Any NGO assistance received by schools must be well documented and made available to the public, Ministry of Education and DISMAC for documentation in national disaster reports.
In every outer island and remote village, there is a need for at least one multi- purpose community hall. It can be used as a venue for village council meetings, government and NGO/CBO workshops, seminars and education tutorials for children. This will mean that normal operation of classes in schools will not be affected. Losses from both natural and man-made disasters will continue to increase as our population grows and concentrates in coastal and low land areas which are vulnerable.
This results in more lives lost, more damages incurred and disruption to the social and economic fabric of communities. Furthermore, the severity of natural disasters is on the rise and its intense impact becoming a burden on schools, on education and on national development.
Pradeep C. Lal is a lecturer at Fiji National University, Labasa Campus. He is Masters student in Development Studies at USP). The views expressed are his own and not that of this newspaper.Feedback and comments on email: email@example.com