Cross-curricular resources: International Day for Disaster Reduction

7th October 2011 at 01:00
The key to building a resilient and adaptive society is to emulate young people's open-minded curiosity, says Dr Richard Haigh
  • International Day for Disaster Reduction, 13 October
  • Humphrey's Pyjama Week, beginning 10 October
    • In 1756, Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a note to Voltaire about the earthquake and tsunami that had devastated Portugal a year earlier. Nature, he said, did not build the houses which had collapsed and he went on to suggest that Lisbon's high population density had contributed to the toll.

      In the centuries that have followed, the debate over how much any disaster can be considered "natural" has only intensified. But it is now broadly accepted that as humans we must take at least some responsibility for contributing to the results.

      What is becoming equally apparent, however, is the importance of resilience - not only in the structures we design and build but in the way we perceive, cope with, and reshape our lives after the worst has happened. To use change to better cope with the unknown. In ancient times, cities like Pompeii were simply abandoned after disaster struck - a move that today strikes us as unthinkable. But learning to bounce back is an emergent behaviour that must be both improvised and adaptive. And our creativity is vital.

      The International Day for Disaster Reduction on 13 October aims to raise awareness about what we can do to reduce risk. This year it focuses on children. For, while it is true that they are more vulnerable to risk, they also have amazing qualities that can make them more creative: an open mind, curiosity and no inhibitions about asking questions. And, as we work towards reducing risk, we need to have them on board and give them a role towards building a disaster-resilient society.

      There has always been a perception that disasters strike most often in poor countries. Certainly a cursory glance at disasters over the past decade shows that the losses of life and destruction of the economy are far greater in these more vulnerable regions. And it is true that the three main categories of "natural" disasters - floods, earthquakes and tropical cyclones, which account for 90 per cent of the world's direct losses - tend to revisit the same geographic zones. As if to complete the vicious natural cycle, these disasters in turn limit the ability of those communities to emerge from the mire of poverty.

      This year, for example, the Eastern Horn of Africa has seen the worst regional drought in 60 years, with the lives and future of more than 12.4 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti at serious risk. However, the disaster is not only the result of failed rains, but also underlying chronic problems such as limited water supplies, increased populations, migration patterns and environmental degradation, all of which have increased vulnerability.

      But wealthier, well-developed communities are far from immune. In 2005, in New Orleans, it was not Hurricane Katrina that devastated the community, but flooding, caused by the faulty design specifications and substandard construction and maintenance of the levees. The city, America later acknowledged, had been badly prepared.

      This year the New Zealand city of Christchurch was devastated on 22 February when a 6.3 magnitude earthquake destroyed most of the central business district and left many outlying suburbs uninhabitable. Though the country is known as the Shaky Isles, seismologists had not predicted such extreme activity in that part of the Canterbury region. Now, however, with its historic buildings largely destroyed, Christchurch is looking to the future and rebuilding a new and very different sort of city.

      Weeks later, on 14 March, the Japanese island of Honshu was rocked by a 8.9 quake - one of the largest ever recorded - and the city subsumed by 14ft tides in the subsequent tsunami.

      These examples show that, even when armed with considerable resources, it is extremely difficult to anticipate and prepare for such unpredictable threats. So, how can society face this challenge?

      The term "resilience" has been widely adopted by researchers and policy makers to describe the way they would like to reduce our society's susceptibility to disasters. Derived from the Latin verb resilire, meaning to rebound or recoil, it was introduced by Thomas Tredgold in the early 18th century to describe a property of timber, and to explain why some types of wood were able to accommodate sudden and severe loads without breaking. But developing societal resilience is not just about erecting large sea walls or highly engineered structures. Modern studies on disaster management focus not only on making buildings resilient, but on people and organisations, too.

      In the first instance, resilience is seen as the ability to accommodate abnormal or periodic threats and disruptive events, be they terrorist actions, the results of climatic change, earthquakes and floods, or an industrial accident. Identifying, assessing and communicating the risks are therefore vital components and those people and nations which are prepared for an abnormal event tend to be more resilient.

      But we live in a world which is constantly evolving and those systems, organisations and people who are able and willing to adapt tend also to be more resilient. Creative solutions, the ability to improvise and the capacity to change will be essential if we are to keep addressing the challenges posed by what is often seen as an unbounded threat.

      As society becomes more complex, resilient communities tend to be those which are well co-ordinated and share common values and beliefs. It is a sense of interconnectedness that can be undermined by self-interest and personal gain. Understanding the link between the physical and social environment will be vital in developing "connectedness".

      Increasingly, people are aware that while change is sometimes gradual and that things can move forward in continuous and predictable ways, change can also be sudden, disorganising and turbulent. Resilience provides a better understanding of how society should respond to disruptive events and accommodate change.

      Dr Richard Haigh is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Disaster Resilience, Salford University, and editor of the International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment.


      Approaching the serious subjects of disasters and tragic world events with young pupils is an important but tricky task. Here are four resources which can make things a little easier.

      1. Bevanloo has shared five simple experiments for demonstrating how natural disasters are caused.

      2. Try kaza2cov's key steps challenge for disasters, which has been popular with teachers as a way to introduce the topic.

      3. Christian Aid has resources on talking to children about global recession, the work of crisis charities and how to give assemblies that tackle tough topics.

      4. The British Red Cross has shared advice through assemblies and classroom activities on teaching children how to stay calm in emergency situations.

      All resources and links at

      Original headline: Children's creativity will help us bounce back from disaster


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