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To Reduce the Impact of Disasters, Increase the Focus on Children

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This month, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake returned to Japan to see child-led progress in Onagawa, three years after visiting communities affected by the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011

Three years ago, I visited a junior high school in Onagawa. Just 12 weeks earlier, the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami had devastated the small coastal town. Hundreds of people were still missing; many residents still lived in evacuation centers; children had just recently returned to school.

Many of the children I met on that visit still were visibly struggling to overcome the trauma: mourning lost loved ones, missing cherished homes and belongings, and welcoming any semblance of the security of childhood routines.

But these children were not only victims. They were also victors -- and not only on the softball field of their school, where a team of girls politely stifled their giggles while letting me join their practice. Amidst the sadness, they were overcoming their losses with laughter and play. The same spirit has driven them and many others like them in Japan to become active participants in rebuilding their communities -- and in doing so, become more resilient themselves.

During my visit, I returned to the same school in Onagawa and was struck again by that resilience, by the sense of responsibility these young people feel to be part of the recovery effort, and by their belief that they can make a difference. In communities across the areas hardest hit in the disaster, students have been devising innovative solutions to future threats based on their own experience. And in a primary school in Sendai, I saw extraordinary dioramas of a resilient new community designed and built by the students.

One group of students has raised money to build stone markers that guide townspeople to places of safety in tsunami and other emergencies. Other young people have carried out an in-depth study of the history and effects of tsunami in the region and designed plans to reduce the impact of disaster.

These children, and other children around the world who have lived through and learned from disasters, have hard-won lessons to share. And with climate-related disasters on the rise and the resulting costs -- both financial and human -- dramatically increasing, we all should be listening.

The number of children affected every year by disasters is projected to reach 175 million over the next ten years -- a figure that will have nearly tripled since the early 1990s. Children represent more than half of all people affected by disasters, and not surprisingly, the children at greatest risk are typically the poorest and hardest to reach.

In the time it takes for a wall of water to wash over a remote rural village or for an earthquake to flatten an urban slum, development gains won painstakingly over the course of years can be crushed. The short and long-term effects upon the lives of the most vulnerable children in these communities are enormous. So is the impact on the economies and the stability of their societies.

If we reduce the impact of disasters on children, we increase the resilience of the entire society.

That is one of the lessons of the Children's Charter for Disaster Risk Reduction, which was produced by more than 600 children and young people from 21 disaster-affected countries, working with Save the Children, World Vision, Plan International and UNICEF. The priorities they identify reflect their experience: Make schools and communities safer. Protect children, keep them learning, and provide the support they need when disaster strikes. Focus greater effort on reaching the most vulnerable children. And, of course: Listen -- to the voices of young people and the knowledge they can uniquely share.

These priorities are not only practical; they give voice to their hopes, their fears, and their plans for the future - a future they should have a role in shaping.

World leaders have an opportunity now to put children and young people at the heart of the global disaster risk reduction framework -- and Japan can lead the way, by supporting the priorities of the Children's Charter at the 3rd United Nations Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, to be held in March 2015 in Sendai, Japan.

This is the third time Japan has hosted this critical conference, a measure of the leadership it has already shown in addressing the mounting risk of disasters head-on -- and an indicator of Japan's intention to further that leadership, by including child-centered disaster risk reduction in its priorities. As a disaster prone nation, Japan has an enormous stake in getting this right. As a global community, we all do.

On my visit to Sendai, I had the chance to see paintings by children that express their wishes for the future. One depicts an enormous black wave with a gaping mouth that threatens to engulf a crowd of children. But standing against that wave is a child, ready -- and clearly able -- to fight back. We owe it to her, to all children living in disaster-prone communities, to stand by their side.

The shortened translated version in Japanese ran on Asahi Shimbun at 00.01am JST March 20, 2014