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World as ‘Lasting Storm’: Educating for Disaster Risk Reduction

Originally appears in the Summer 2013 issue

Disaster risk is on the rise globally as disasters increase in both frequency and severity[i].  Extreme weather events, geo-seismic hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes, technological hazards, and so-called slow-onset or ‘creeping’ hazards such as environmental degradation, desertification and loss of biodiversity are triggering a thickening procession of catastrophe affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.  Although developing countries have been disproportionally affected, those in the developed world find themselves having to shed an ‘out there but not here’ attitude to disaster.  Events such as the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in northeastern Japan in 2011, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy in 2005 and 2012, prolonged drought in Central and Eastern Canada in the summer of 2012, and the hugely destructive Tasmanian and New South Wales heat waves and bushfires in January 2013, amongst others, have been formative in this regard.  Often falling below the threshold of media attention, tens of hundreds of small-scale natural disasters have also severely impacted the lives, well-being and prospects of peoples and communities around the world.[ii]

‘Storm’ in our title seeks to connote ongoing and projected disaster impacts both concretely and metaphorically.  In the former sense, ‘storm’ refers to intensified and more frequent weather-related hazards.  In the latter sense, it refers to the environmental, economic, social and psychological turbulence of an increasingly disaster-prone and climate-changed world.  Leading climate change scientist, James Hansen, now in his mid-sixties, tries to capture both senses when he worries about the ‘storms of my grandchildren’.[iii]  More and more people around the globe can identify with Marina in Shakespeare’s Pericles when she declares that: “This world to me is like a lasting storm”[iv].

In this article we briefly overview the global emergence of disaster risk reduction education, its scope and curricular reach.  We then lay out what we see as its five essential dimensions which, taken as a whole, offer potential for positive and proactive learner engagement with a topic easily conducive to despair.  We conclude by briefly exploring the interface and synergies between disaster risk reduction education and environmental education.

Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) Education

Against a backcloth of quickening incidence and increasing scale of disaster, 168 governments met at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan in 2005 and adopted the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) 2005-2015.  Sub-titled Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters, HFA lays out a strategic and systematic approach to reducing risk from natural hazard.  While each of five identified priorities for action has implications for schools and school systems, it is HFA priority 3 that has the most direct relevance to education with its call to national, regional and local jurisdictions to “use knowledge, innovation and education to build a culture of safety and resilience.”[v]  Integration of DRR knowledge in school curricula has been flagged as an international goal to be realized by 2015.[vi]

The scope of HFA “encompasses disasters caused by hazards of natural origin and related environmental and technological hazards and risks”.[vii]  In consequence, DRR education has mainly been developed within a natural disaster framework.  However, there are examples around the world of school curricula where the notion of ‘disaster’ is more broadly conceived.  A case in point is New Zealand where the national online DRR curricular package, What’s the Plan Stan?, focuses on both ‘natural disasters’ such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and storms and floods, and ‘non-natural disasters’ caused by human agency such as pandemics, biohazards (i.e. chemical spills), transportation accidents and terrorist bombs and threats.[viii]  In Laos the national DRR curriculum includes the topic of civil unrest while in Madagascar it includes the study of malnutrition.[ix]  In the countries of Western and Central Africa, there has been mounting interest in combining natural disaster-related education with education to combat and reduce conflict and its effects, what has been called ‘DRR-plus’.[x]  The threat from climate change, now more frequently figuring in DRR curricula and discourse, especially in Africa[xi], is, for the most part not considered to be “of natural origin.”

Disaster-related curriculum initially spearheaded by geography and natural and physical sciences – the traditional curricular homes of climate and seismology – is increasingly giving way to a broader, multidisciplinary and socially oriented approach. The notion of building a “culture of safety and resilience” has brought into focus practical, values-based, societal and community-linked dimensions of disaster risk reduction calling for cross-curricular treatment (including, but not limited to, geography and science).  So, for instance, stories, fables, poems and news articles on hazards and disasters might be incorporated in language class, while the impacts of disasters and sudden climate shifts on past civilizations might be discussed in history, community vulnerability assessment projects undertaken in social studies, and hazard impact data graphing and trend analysis worked on in the math classroom. A through-the-grades approach with learning outcome progression is increasingly being advocated.  So, for instance, children in early grades are acquiring hazard awareness and learning hazard safety procedures while students in middle and senior grades learn to apply human rights concepts to disaster issues and explore economic and social drivers fomenting disaster[xii].

DRR in education has been broadly described as involving a “combination of actions, processes and attitudes necessary for minimizing underlying factors of vulnerability, improving preparedness and building resilience” in the face of hazard.[xiii] Following from this, we suggest that DRR cross-curricular learning and teaching in times of ‘lasting storm’ should incorporate five ‘essential dimensions.’ The first two of those dimensions primarily concern disaster preparedness, while the third focuses on vulnerability.  The fourth and fifth dimensions concern resilience building. The latter two dimensions also aim to develop learner understanding of the related and potentially complementary notions of adaptation in the face of hazard and mitigation of factors exacerbating disaster risk.[xiv]

Dimension 1: Understanding the Science and Mechanisms of Natural Disasters

Globally there has been acceptance that preparedness for disaster calls upon learners to understand the nature of natural hazards.  For this reason, DRR programs commonly focus on understanding the science and mechanisms of natural disasters, especially disasters most likely to happen within the learners’ national, regional and/or local context.  Hence, in Turkey, priority is given to earthquakes, whilst in Mekong River-dependent Cambodia flooding is the predominant curricular focus, with volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and hurricanes also being addressed.[xv]  The study of disaster science and mechanics covers the following: why and how natural phenomena of disaster potential happen, where they occur, their frequency and power, their physical impacts, and trends and patterns in their occurrence.[xvi]  This dimension of disaster risk reduction education is rooted, as intimated above, in the physical and natural sciences and predates the widening circle of curricular attention to disaster occasioned by the idea of building a ‘culture of safety and resilience.’ There are clear parallels here with the journey of environmental education away from monopolization by science to attracting crosscutting curricular treatment.[xvii] The activity, Natural Disaster People Search, following this article combines elements of this dimension with elements of Dimension 2.

Dimension 2: Learning and Practicing Safety Measures and Procedures

A second essential dimension of DRR education involves instruction and practice in safety measures and procedures in the event of hazard while attending school, in the home, or out in the community.  Included under this heading are: familiarization with hazard early warning signs and signals (e.g. local and indigenous understandings of sudden changes in animal or weather behaviors), instruction in evacuation and sheltering procedures, emergency drills and exercises, familiarization with basic first aid and health and safety measures, as well as guidance on staying safe before, during and after a hazard.[xviii]  For instance, in the curriculum we developed for primary schools in Vanuatu there are interactive learning activities on do’s and don’ts when a cyclone strikes the islands, ways of counteracting village flooding and fostering ‘tsunami-wise’ behaviors, as well as ‘snap group’ activities in which learners have to make fairly instantaneous decisions in the light of an imminent emergency described on a ‘snap card.’[xix] Learning falling under this dimension is not subject-specific and often involves a melding of the extra-curricular and the curricular. The activity, Hurricane Message Match, sits fairly and squarely within this dimension.

Dimension 3: Understanding Risk Drivers and How Hazards Can Become Disasters

By focusing exclusively or primarily on the science of natural hazards and/or on safety procedures in preparedness for hazard, there is the danger of DRR learning programs inadvertently conveying the fatalistic impression that there is little that can be done to deflect the inevitable.  To offset that impression and encourage learner agency and pro-activity in reducing risk, more thoroughgoing approaches to DRR education revolve around a fundamental disaster risk formula:

Disaster Risk = Natural Hazard x Vulnerability [xx]
                              Capacity of Societal System

Hazard and disaster are different but interlinked.  A hazard is an event with the potential to effect harm.  A disaster happens when the hazard exceeds people’s capacity to cope, with devastating impact.  Clearly the risk of disaster multiplies with the intensity of the hazard but the level of risk is also exacerbated by prevailing conditions and levels of physical, social, economic and environmental vulnerability in any population. Poor quality of built environment (materials and design) is a primary example of physical vulnerability driving up risk.  Social risk drivers include: illiteracy and lack of education; lack of health security; lack of social cohesion; and the tenuous hold on security of marginalized and oppressed groups. Economic risk drivers are primarily linked to poverty and inequality, while environmental risk drivers include natural resource depletion, a degraded ecosystem as a result of biodiversity loss, deforestation, and reduced access to clean air and safe water. Under this heading, a question to be asked of any learning group concerns the mix of natural and social factors driving disasters. Having learners actively examine risk drivers, both local and global, and map the local vulnerability landscape through participation, even leadership, in community-based investigative and awareness-raising projects is an essential element of this dimension.[xxi] The activities, Hazard Memories and Wisdom and Community Map, offer examples of community engagement of this kind. This dimension confirms the shift away from disaster risk reduction as the province of the natural and physical sciences with the social sciences called upon to make a core contribution [xxii].

Dimension 4: Building Community Risk Reduction Capacity

On the opposite side of the coin but drawing on the same formula, is the awareness that risk is commensurately reduced by the increased capacity of a society to protect itself against hazard.  Hence, DRR education is largely about engaging learners with processes of resilience building in their own community.  For this reason, there has been significant development in the DRR field of out-of-school learning activities involving community vulnerability mapping and assessment, cross-community vulnerability transects, and bringing students and adults together to jointly engage in resilience action planning and implementation.[xxiii]  Resilience building involves both adaptation to and mitigation of hazard.  Mitigation, at one level, is about lessening or limiting the direct and immediate consequences of hazard.  At this level, it overlaps with adaptation, i.e. adjusting human behaviors or natural processes to modify the effects of hazard; for example, learning new crop planting regimes so plants can better withstand drought or higher levels of precipitation.  At a deeper level, mitigation involves examining human responsibility for increases in the frequency and severity of hazard and seeking to effect fundamental changes in patterns of behavior; for example, unpacking the dynamics of rampant consumerism as a means of arresting or slowing climate change. In terms of actual practice, much DRR education so far stops short of deeper enquiry, focusing on mitigating the effects of hazard rather than interrogating human-caused drivers that exacerbate hazard.[xxiv]  The activity, Bouncing Back, offers an effective but simple experiential means of conveying the idea of resilience.

This fourth dimension also involves students in learning about local and indigenous disaster-related knowledge and best practice, engaging with community keepers of indigenous knowledge, bringing together traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge and, after due critical reflection, applying what has been learnt in determining practical, context-appropriate resilience-building measures.  The activity, Hazard Memories and Wisdom, falls under this heading while Mapping Community Vulnerability and Capacity also capitalizes on community experience.

Dimension 5: Building an Institutional and Community-wide Culture of Safety and Resilience

DRR in education is commonly held to have structural and non-structural aspects.  The former concerns buttressing and retrofitting so-called ‘hard’ components such as school grounds, buildings and facilities to better withstand hazard; it also involves in some cases relocating a school away from a hazard-prone environment.  The latter addresses so-called ‘soft’ components such as school hazard and disaster policy and management as well as formal, informal and non-formal DRR learning.[xxv]  What has rarely been achieved in DRR developments so far is a blending of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ elements so that the school evolves into a DRR learning organization at the hub of a DRR learning community.

This dimension therefore involves not only capitalizing on disaster-related curriculum opportunities as such, but also exploiting the learning to be had from engaging students in ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ aspects of school (and school/community) safety and resilience building.  For instance: having learners meet and engage with technical personnel on structural aspects of school safety, giving learners a voice in school DRR policy development, letting students manage and maintain school/community hazard bulletin boards, or instituting a school and community DRR council with student membership.[xxvi] Key here is the embedding of out-of-class and in-community engagement within the curriculum. The activity, Disaster Risk Communication, involves students in sharing outcomes of community hazard mapping with community members.

The notion of a DRR learning community should optimally stretch to include the local community, with the school a hub of environmental and community security.  Arguing that quality learning is best achieved by connecting learning in class to meaningful place-based action, Stephen Skoutajan writes that “there is a strong case to be made for turning our schools into community hubs where students can learn through authentic, meaningful and practical experiences.”[xxvii] The same conviction informs a Central American DRR education project where schools assume bioregional leadership as ‘promoters of territorial safety.’ A key contribution to territorial risk management through the school’s educative mission enables “children and young people to be trained as social players” through involvement in risk reduction initiatives.[xxviii]

Taken together, the five dimensions offer an educational response to ‘world as lasting storm’ that is the ever more evident and unbroken experience of peoples and communities around the world.  To confront such a world and, as much as possible, pre-empt the intensification of disaster trends, it is profoundly important that our disaster risk reduction education focuses in depth on understanding and addressing vulnerabilities in the process of building an integrated school and community culture of safety and resilience.

Why Disaster Risk Reduction is Important to Environmental Education

Disaster risk reduction education and environmental education, having different origins and trajectories, share much in common. Their proponents are motivated to diminish the drivers – economic, social and cultural – that are devastating the natural environment, local through global, a trail of devastation with profound repercussions for human societies. They are particularly at one in their concern for education directed at mitigating those factors behind so-called slow onset environmental conditions of hugely hazardous potential, such as deforestation and desertification, and that also lie behind the all-embracing, ubiquitous threat of climate change. It is noteworthy that UNESCO has identified three inter-related priorities to be addressed in the second half of the Decade for Education for Sustainable Development (2005-14): disaster risk reduction education and preparedness, climate change and biodiversity education.[xxix]

There is a strongly overlapping place-based emphasis in both fields.  Through place-based education and bio-regional education linking the natural world and local cultures[xxx], and through outdoor education[xxxi], environmental education has developed a long and outstanding tradition of attuning the learner to the attributes and rhythms of place, while helping the learner see human culture not as divided from nature, but as an outcropping of interaction with place.  Disaster risk reduction builds on that tradition in its emphasis on viewing community and the environment through the lenses of vulnerability and resilience. It also connects with action-oriented environmental education[xxxii] through its emphasis on engaging learners in locally based vulnerability assessment and resilience building projects.  For instance, working in conjunction with the international organization, Plan International, children on Comotes Island in the Philippines conducted a vulnerability and risk assessment exercise of their local community and ecosystem.  Through it, they came to realize that cutting down mangroves for charcoal had heightened disaster risk in their community.  A children-led mangrove rehabilitation campaign was begun to re-protect the community against storm surges and tsunami, and provide a breeding ground for fish.[xxxiii]

Good synergies might come from bringing together DRR education and environmental education. New pathways for exploring the human-nature relationship might well be opened up. A focus on local disaster risk reduction could bring immediacy to seemingly intangible and distant global environmental issues such as climate change through engaging in concrete action projects aimed at resilience building.  Bringing together each field’s use of indigenous wisdom and insight has the potential to deepen and enrich both fields.  A systematic whole-school and school-in-community approach to risk adaptation and mitigation in the name of building a culture of safety and resilience might also bring new life to the oftentimes-flagging notion of the green school.  Threatened by a world of ‘lasting storm,’ the future requires no less.

David Selby is Founding Director and Fumiyo Kagawa is Research Director of Sustainability Frontiers (, a not-for-profit international organization with offices in Canada and the United Kingdom.   They are authors of Disaster Risk Reduction in School Curricula: Case Studies from Thirty Countries (UNESCO/UNICEF, 2012) and the online package of teacher education and classroom activities, Climate Change in the Classroom: UNESCO Course for Secondary Teachers on Climate Change Education for Sustainable Development (UNESCO, 2013).  Their new book, Sustainability Frontiers: Critical and Transformative Voices from the Borderlands of Sustainability Education, will appear later in 2013.  The authors welcome feedback from those who use the following six activities.  Contact them at

For the UN materials noted above, visit:

Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank Avianto Amri, Plan International, and Olivier Schick, Memo’Risks, for kindly providing the photos accompanying this article.  For further details of respective organizations’ work, please visit: and


[i]            Guha-Sapir., Vos, F., Below, R. with Ponsere S. Annual Disaster Statistical Review 2011: The Numbers and Trends, CRED, 2011.

[ii]          UNISDR, Global assessment report on disaster risk reduction: Revealing risk, redefining development, UNISDR, 2011.

[iii] Hansen, J.  Storms of My Grandchildren: The truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity.  Bloomsbury, 2009.

[iv]               William Shakespeare, Pericles, Act IV, Scene 1.

[v]           UNISDR, Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the resilience of nations and communities to disasters, UNISDR, 2005.

[vi]           UNISDR, Outcome document: Chair’s summary of the second session global platform to disaster risk reduction, UNISDR, 2009; UNISDR. Chair’s summary: Third session of the global platform for disaster risk reduction and world reconstruction conference, UNISDR, 2011.

[vii]          UNISDR, Chair’s summary: Third session of the global platform for disaster risk reduction and world reconstruction conference; UNISDR, 2011.

[viii]          Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management (New Zealand)., What’s the Plan Stan? Teachers’ guide, 2006. <>

[ix]           Selby, D. & Kagawa, F., Disaster risk reduction in school curricula: Case

studies from thirty countries, UNESCO & UNICEF, 2012.  <>

[x]           UNICEF, UNICEF DRR focal meeting, Geneva, 12-14 September 2011.

[xi]           Selby, D. & Kagawa, F.,  Disaster risk reduction in school curricula: Case studies from thirty countries, UNESCO & UNICEF, 2012, pp.122, 128, 186.

[xii]              See, for instance, Selby, D. & Kagawa, F.,  Disaster risk reduction in school curricula: Case studies from thirty countries, UNESCO & UNICEF, 2012, 51-2.

[xiii]          Global Education Cluster, UNICEF, Plan International & Save the Children, Disaster risk reduction in education in emergencies: A guidance note for education clusters and sector coordination groups.  <>

[xiv]          Selby, D. & Kagawa, F., Towards a learning culture of safety and resilience: Technical guidance for integrating disaster risk reduction in the school curriculum, UNESCO & UNICEF, 2013 (forthcoming).

[xv]           Selby, D. & Kagawa, F., Disaster risk reduction in school curricula: Case

studies from thirty countries, UNESCO & UNICEF, 2012.

[xvi]          Selby, D. & Kagawa, F., Towards a learning culture of safety and resilience: Technical guidance for integrating disaster risk reduction in the school curriculum, UNESCO & UNICEF, 2013 (forthcoming).

[xvii]          Russell, C., Bell, A. & Fawcett, L., “Navigating the waters of Canadian environmental education, in Goldstein,” T. & Selby, D. (eds.), Weaving connections: Education for peace, social justice and environmental justice, Sumach Press, 2010, pp. 196-212.

[xviii]         Selby, D. & Kagawa, F., Towards a learning culture of safety and resilience: Technical guidance for integrating disaster risk reduction in the school curriculum, UNESCO & UNICEF, 2013 (forthcoming).

[xix]          Kagawa, F. & Selby, D., Disaster risk reduction education in Vanuatu: Pilot curriculum materials, teachers’ guide and evaluation instruments, Save the Children Australia, 2012, pp.63-90. <>

[xx]           UNESCO & UNEP, Climate change starter’s guidebook, UNESCO, 2011.

[xxi]          Selby, D. & Kagawa, F., Towards a learning culture of safety and resilience: Technical guidance for integrating disaster risk reduction in the school curriculum, UNESCO & UNICEF, 2013 (forthcoming).

[xxii]          Ibid.

[xxiii]         Plan International, Child-Centred DRR toolkit, Plan UK, 2010.

[xxiv]         Selby, D. & Kagawa, F., Towards a learning culture of safety and resilience: Technical guidance for integrating disaster risk reduction in the school curriculum, UNESCO & UNICEF, 2013 (forthcoming).

[xxv]          ASEAN-ISDR Technical Cooperation. 2011. Disaster resilience starts with the young: Mainstreaming disaster risk reduction in the school curriculum, The ASEAN Secretariat, 2011.

[xxvi]         Selby, D. & Kagawa, F., Towards a learning culture of safety and resilience: Technical guidance for integrating disaster risk reduction in the school curriculum, UNESCO & UNICEF, 2013 (forthcoming).

[xxvii]         Skoutajan, S., Defending place-based education.  Studies that demonstrate that outdoor place-based education improves student achievement, Green Teacher, 97, 2012, p. 35

[xxviii]        UNISDR, ECHO, CECC & UNICEF, Safe schools in safe territories: Reflection of the role of the educational community in risk management. Undated. < >

[xxix]         UNESCO, UNESCO strategies for the second half of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, UNESCO, 2010.

[xxx]          Smith,G.A. & Williams, D.R., Ecological education in action: On weaving education, culture and the environment, State University of New York Press, 1999; Traina, F. & Darley-Hill, S., Perspectives in bioregional education, National American Association for Environmental Education, 1995.

[xxxi]         Woodhouse, J. & Knapp, C., Place-based curriculum and instruction: Outdoor and environmental education approaches, ERIC Digest.

[xxxii]         Smith,G.A. & Williams, D.R., Ecological education in action: On weaving education, culture and the environment, State University of New York Press.

[xxxiii]        Plan International, Child-centred disaster risk reduction: Building resilience through participation: Lessons from Plan International, Plan UK, 2010.


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