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Why Children Are More Vulnerable To Disasters

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By Wasi MD Alam:

The huge impact of disasters on children is visible with the staggering number of deaths and injuries to children. Children are more vulnerable if they are younger and are already ill. Among lives lost in disasters, at least one out of three is a child below 18 years of age.

Children are the worst affected by disasters due to the physical, psychological and social vulnerabilities. The major impact remains due to the physical vulnerability, as children bear the brunt of shock due to any disaster. Be it natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, cyclones, heat and cold wave or man-made disasters like fire, epidemic, civil strife, etc.

Children are the worst sufferers as they are doubly hit. Firstly, at the time of the disaster, due to the inability to escape or fend for themselves, especially for very young children at a high risk of injury. Secondly, post-disaster, due to separation or loss of their families and their homes.

Tender age and little experience during disasters make children more vulnerable. Children show high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder. There are several reasons for it. Shock due to chaos and panic caused in the neighbourhood during disasters, seeing loved ones die or get injured, the damage to their houses, losing their belongings, having to live with hunger and thirst, self-injury, separation from their parents and siblings, etc.

Children unable to the cope with post-traumatic stress show certain symptoms. They become quite, lose their appetite, continuously sob, revisit traumatic episodes, lose sleep, become anxious and depressed.

The social vulnerability is because society doesn’t inform them about disasters or how to cope with them. The emergence of anti-social elements during disasters leads to exploitation, abuse and trafficking of children. The loss of a support system puts the children at risk as they roam around unattended. For examples, after floods, a number of children drown, as they play in flood waters.

Irrespective of the vulnerability being physical, psychological or social, it surmounts the risk of a disaster on children, which is further aggravated due to the intensity of the disaster and its low coping capacity.

The cyclonic storm ‘Vardah’, with a wind speed of 120 kph impacted Chennai and its neighbouring coastal districts of Thiruvallur and Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu on December 12, 2016. Reports indicated that 400,000 people had been displaced by the floods which caused over $1 billion of damage. Due to the severity of the cyclonic storm, lakhs of trees were uprooted, electric poles and transformers were damaged, water connections were disrupted, agricultural crops were damaged, houses with thatched roofs collapsed and houses with asbestos roofs were badly damaged.

In Kanchipuram district, out of 633 gram panchayats, 265 are reported to be severely affected. District level data suggests that approximately 7000 houses that have been affected – sustaining either partial or total damage (507 fully damaged, 6610 partially damaged). Nearly 18,121 trees and 8330 electrical poles, 130 transformers and 27 electrical Tower Lines have been uprooted or damaged.

This disaster had an adverse impact on children. Children thought, they would never live to see another day. “I was so afraid that I kept praying to God,” said Revari, a class 7 student from Orgadam Village, Kanchipuram District, Tamil Nadu. There were other children affected too. “I was scared as I had never experienced such wind speed, but thank God all of us survived, I will gain knowledge and help children to be better prepared in case of such disaster,” said Ashok Kumar, a class 7 student from Ambedkar Nagar Village, Kanchipuram District, Tamil Nadu.

The disaster risks can be minimised by building a safety net for children so that they are protected and can cope better in a disaster situation. There is a need to understand the risks faced by children in the community. The village disaster management plans need to prioritise children in terms of rescue or evacuation in a disaster situation. School safety becomes an important issue as children spend a considerable amount of time in schools.

Children are quick learners and need to be involved in all exercises for school safety. Thus, it is important to identify hazards in school premises involving children and develop a school disaster management plan, including regular mock drills and training on first aid. There is a strong need for interventions post disasters by providing counselling, developing recreational facilities, children supplying nutritious foods, educational materials, etc.

During a training program for school children being conducted by me, I had once asked the children to share some of the losses due to a disaster, to which I got a unique response from a child. She mentioned – “A number of young minds are lost in a disaster.” I echo that response and there is a need for concrete actions to protect children from disasters in the near future.

CARE India works towards providing immediate relief and assists in the rehabilitation process of the affected communities in the aftermath of any calamity. We help communities build their capacity to better cope with and recover from disasters.

Our foremost goal is to build resilience among the community and various stakeholders in case of any disaster. We work closely with communities, who have been affected by disasters so that long-term development of the communities with sustainable livelihood opportunities may be secured and they are better equipped in future.

Wasi MD Alam is a Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) Officer, Disaster Management Unit, at CARE India.

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