In China, on 12 May 2008, a massive earthquake struck Wenchuan County in Sichuan Province, damaging more than 12,000 schools – 40 per cent of all schools in the province – and another 6,500 schools in neighbouring Gansu Province. It is estimated that thousands of children died.
Disaster struck Pakistan in 2005, and again on 29 October 2008, when an earthquake hit Balochistan Province, damaging about 300 schools in the worst affected districts – 85 per cent of all district schools – as well as 124 schools in the neighbouring Quetta district. More than 31,000 students were affected.
Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar on 2 May 2008, leaving floods and destruction in the Irrawaddy Delta, affecting 2.4 million people, causing 84,537 deaths and destroying more than 4,000 schools.
On 7 November, more than 90 children and teachers perished in Haiti after their school collapsed because of poor infrastructure. Hurricanes and tropical storms that pounded the country in August and September damaged nearly 1,000 schools. The following week another school collapsed, fortunately with no fatalities.
This destruction and damage to schools and communities, and many of these fatalities, were preventable. But due to poor construction, outdated and unsafe buildings, and in some cases government corruption or lack of supervision, communities suffered the loss of their most precious and promising citizens.
“Whether caused by poor construction or natural catastrophes, school collapses invariably have disastrous effects on children,” said Cream Wright, UNICEF Global Chief of Education. “Schools must be safe places where children can learn and thrive.”
The role of architecture
Long before the disasters mentioned above made headline news, humanitarian aid agencies, led by UNICEF, embarked on setting architectural standards that governments can abide by and enforce to safeguard students and teachers. In some of the most challenging areas of the world, architecture is rapidly gaining attention in humanitarian relief and education service delivery. The urgency to design and build safe schools has become paramount for some architects and international humanitarian educationalists.
Carlos Vasquez, an architect working with UNICEF’s education section, came to the organization with a background in socially conscious design and construction.
“Most of my past experience concentrated on low-income housing, community health clinics for single mothers with HIV, urban interventions to improve living conditions of communities, and school construction,” he said in his office in New York.
Architecture has long been focused on problem solving. As international humanitarian aid and development communities are increasingly asked to address root causes of conflict and crisis, UNICEF has increasingly emphasized architecture as a means to alleviate chronic issues in schools – the first and foremost being safety.
During the past several years, Vasquez has travelled to a number of areas in Africa and Asia hit by natural disasters. Underlying his approach to humanitarian work is a basic participatory method. Vasquez makes sure his work adopts models that fit local solutions and materials, and that these methods instil community ownership.
Part of that attitude reflects a larger ideal in international development that encourages moving away from the piecemeal solutions of emergency work in countries affected by natural disaster and conflict.
“Investments in the communities, and in schools in particular, need to move from emergency support to development and sustainability,” said Vasquez.
While advocates in humanitarian aid have had to ‘sell’ schooling as a key component to the first line of emergency aid delivery, the recent school collapses have taught the global community that school design and construction are not optional services on the menu of first response.
Impact of climate change
During a recent education meeting at UNICEF in New York, Vasquez made an important inclusion of climate change, naming three things that should be done for education: make climate change part of the curriculum at schools; evaluate how far from a water source a school should be built; and reassess existing schools to prevent future collapses.
“Climate change affects schools,” he stated. “When you have deforestation as high as 80 per cent in some countries, you have a problem. Without materials, how do you build schools?”
New construction also considers sustainability of the environment and of materials used. Climate change will have an enormous impact on what can and what should be used.
Safe construction is an essential component of child-friendly schools (CFS) and learning spaces, which have the overall aim of ensuring a quality education for all children. Under the CFS model, school environments must be safe, healthy and protective – and endowed with trained teachers, adequate resources, and appropriate physical, emotional and social conditions for learning.
To help countries get onto the right path, UNICEF will launch the Child-Friendly School Manual this year. The manual is a practical guidebook intended to help countries design and implement child-friendly schools that are most appropriate to their circumstances.
In a world made increasingly volatile by climate change, civil conflict and a deepening financial crisis, innovative school design and construction can save lives.