By Karen Emmons
Bangkok, 18 June 2009 – The world is getting more hazardous for children.
In the next decade, more than a hundred million children will be affected every year by natural disasters brought about by climate change, estimate scientists at Geoscience Australia.
They also report that the Asia–Pacific region faces an era of “mega disasters”, affecting hundreds of thousands of people as urbanization, climate change and food shortages amplify the impact of natural catastrophes, such as earthquakes and cyclones.
“The end result,” says Gary Keith Ovington, UNICEF education in emergencies senior specialist based in Bangkok, “is increased risk for children, especially in the 0–8 age group.”
However, governments and communities are also putting those children at greater risk by not taking into account the specific needs of young children within emergency preparedness plans, Ovington adds.
Research by the Asia–Pacific Regional Network for Early Childhood indicates that where national plans exist, few countries have included early childhood development (ECD) provisions.
ECD refers to a cross-section of all the critical inputs a child needs to develop – from the intellectual/cognitive, emotional and social influences to the physical (food, clean water, sanitation), and requires coordination among several sectors.
“Eight of the world’s top ten worst disasters in 2008, in terms of deaths, occurred in Asia,” says Ovington. “Look at those numbers of deaths – young children account for the greatest numbers. They are the least able to run or to hide.”
He adds, “Negative experiences during early childhood, including those related to nutrition and health, may well have long-lasting and detrimental effects on children’s well being and dev.”
According to Ovington, one of the most important things a government can do for its population is to have proper preparedness and contingency plans in place, but the plans must include every age group.
To help governments and communities understand and prepare for what needs to be done for young children, UNICEF in collaboration with the Save the Children Alliance in May brought together ECD, education and health specialists from 13 countries for the first time to chart a plan for working together in emergencies.
The four-day workshop focused on mapping experiences and gaps in dealing with ECD in emergencies, and on helping countries develop national emergency plans that include ECD. In addition, the cross-section of participants from UN agencies, governments and local NGOs discussed what should be included in an ECD in Emergencies Tool Kit, which UNICEF is developing.
“This is vital because ECD is not another discrete sector. It must be integrated within all sectors through an integrated approach that starts from the needs of the child and attempts to meet those needs by drawing on the resources and expertise of all relevant sectors,” explains Ovington. “Without adequate cross-sector planning for young children prior to emergencies, gaps are inevitable.”
He says the next step will be to help governments successfully integrate ECD into national emergency plans.
“Some countries have ECD policies, many have emergency preparedness plans, but very few have brought together ECD and emergencies in a systematic and explicit way,” noted Peter Delahaye, UNICEF Director of the Asia–Pacific Shared Services Centre, at the close of the workshop.
“This is a huge gap because if the needs of young children are not met, it could do irreparable and long-lasting harm,” he added in stressing the importance of partners working together.
Ovington says ECD is often pigeonholed with education because of the importance of getting children back to school in an emergency. But ECD largely refers to children not yet in school.
Schools, however, can provide an effective staging point for reaching children and their mothers with essential services in a crisis, such as immunizations, hygiene materials, clean water, washing facilities, safe space and activities.
“Early childhood development gets overlooked in the best of times,” Ovington notes, “but a good preparedness plan would start with an extensive analysis of the hazards, the possible scenarios and how they will affect each age group of the population and what is needed to respond and be based on real scenario figures,” he adds.
“If governments – and communities – do that,” says Ovington, “it’s the single most important step forward.”
The cross-section of 50 participants from governments and local NGOs along with UNICEF and Save the Children officers attending the ECD in emergencies workshop in Phuket, Thailand, represented Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Vanuatu and Viet Nam.