The Solomon Islands is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. Tropical cyclones are expected every year, seasonal winds and rains regularly damage houses and food gardens and flooding and landslides are common. Located on the Pacific ‘rim of fire’, earthquakes occur frequently and coastal communities are vulnerable to tsunamis.
Schools are not immune to these disasters, and many schools in the Solomon Islands are built beside rivers, in coastal areas or on landslide-prone slopes.
The threat of COVID-19 is an urgent reminder of the importance of adequate, readily available clean water to prevent disease. However, few schools in the Solomon Islands have access to clean, safe water. According to a national survey conducted in 2018 by the Ministry of Education and Human Resources with support from UNICEF, 73% of schools had access to a water source. Only 56% of schools had harnessed that source for student use. Just 29% of schools had handwashing facilities on school premises and none had soap available. Students were therefore exposed to a high risk of COVID-19 infection or transmission and other communicable diseases.
Disaster risk reduction champions of tomorrow
Children have a right to participate in all decisions affecting their lives. With the support of the Australian Government through the Australian Humanitarian Partnership Disaster READY program, Save the Children and World Vision are implementing the ‘DRR Champions of Tomorrow’ project in eight schools across Malaita and Makira provinces. The project is adopting the ‘Safe Schools’ approach which promotes the full participation of children in an all-hazards method of identifying, mitigating and responding to risks in schools and surrounding communities.
In Makira Province, World Vision is working with four schools to incorporate COVID-19 prevention and awareness-raising activities into school disaster preparedness and response plans. Activities included the installation of handwashing stations and sharing hygiene and sanitation information with students and teachers.
In Malaita Province, Save the Children has worked with 89 students, 26 out-of-school children, 57 teachers and 27 community leaders to form Safe Schools teams in Laulana Community High School, St John Catholic School, Sinasu Community High School and Gwaigeo Community High School. The four Safe Schools teams have brought these different groups together to listen to each other about their different risk and protection experiences and to map local hazards and identify mitigation strategies. Save the Children facilitated these discussions through a series of participatory workshops and sessions conducted between January and May 2020.
Students identify the disaster risks and come up with the solutions
The team from Laulana Community High School identified pollution issues associated with a small river running along the boundary of the school grounds. Students use water for handwashing and cleaning jobs. Children also swim in the river and jump in to cool off after playing sport. Surrounding communities use the water for bathing and to wash clothes and cooking utensils.
The upstream reach of the river had become an informal car wash with local transport providers driving their vehicles right into the water to wash them. The students noticed that the water had become contaminated with oil and other engine fluids, emitting a strong smell and making it unsafe.
The Safe Schools team collaborated with the local Village Development Committee to determine potential solutions. They resolved to prevent vehicle access to the river to deter people from driving cars into the water. Youth from the neighbouring Radefasu community were authorised and equipped to construct a simple log barrier. While simple, this measure was effective in stopping cars being washed in the river, the water cleared and the health risks to students and the wider community removed.
At Gwaigeo Community High School, students raised concerns during a hazard mapping exercise that the structure of the main classroom building was not robust due to termite damage in the roof and floor, and could collapse during an extreme weather event. The Head Teacher, Mr Alex Isumae, responded by mobilising the school management committee and Parents and Teachers Association to renovate the building. The Safe Schools team then successfully approached a former member of the Provincial Government to assist them with funding for the repairs. The project was scheduled to be completed by September 2020. Empowered by their success, the students are now advocating for regular maintenance and timely repairs.