Young HANDs! fellows across Asia are working together to prepare their countries against the threat of natural disasters.
AS far as most locals could remember, the city of Yogyakarta, Indonesia had never experienced an earthquake.
But that all changed on the morning of May 2006. A 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck around 25km south of the densely populated city at 5.50am, and it was devastating.
It killed an estimated 5,700 people, and left another 1.2 million homeless.
Despite a history of volcanic eruptions in the area, no one was prepared.
“Before 2006, Yogyakarta had never felt an earthquake,” explained Yogya resident and survivor, Gilang Damar Setiadi, 26.
Gilang lost family members and a close friend during the disaster. The destruction left a deep impression on him.
“It made me realise I needed to do something to help my hometown,” he said.
Gilang is now one of 24 fellows on a bi-annual disaster preparedness programme called The Hopes and Dreams (HANDs!) Together Project, run by the Japan Foundation.
The project aims to equip young leaders from across Asia to save lives in their own communities through disaster education and preparedness programmes.
Malaysian Yeo Li Shian, 37, is another such leader. The former journalist hopes to help educate fellow Malaysians about flood preparedness through a series of online video comedy skits.
“From my research, I understand that most disaster education and safety drills are very dull and theoretical,” she said.
“So I hope that using comedy will get the message across more effectively.”
As part of the programme, she had to do months of research on how Malaysia deals with disasters. She was shocked to realise that most organisations and associations only deal with post-disaster relief.
But with almost every state in Malaysia affected by flash floods – the most recent floods happened over the new year and displaced 23,000 people – it’s clear to Yeo that Malaysia needs to step up its disaster education game.
“What I want Malaysia to know is that we should all be prepared,” she said.
“We’re dealing with climate change and even the earth is constantly shifting. We might not have earthquakes now, but who knows what lies in the future? We should be prepared before it strikes.”
As part of the programme, Yeo, Gilang, and the other HANDs! fellows travelled to Phuket, Thailand in March to learn about the life-saving changes that have been made since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
There, they met with a survivor, Waraporn “Lek” Tipsuthon, 45.
Lek barely survived by clinging on to the roof of her restaurant, but she lost seven family members that day, and her beach-front restaurant was completely destroyed.
“We used to joke about tsunamis. We didn’t expect it to actually happen here,” she said.
Her province, Phang Nga, was the worst affected by the tsunami in Thailand. 4,136 people were killed and another 2,113 never found.
“Just a five or 10-minute warning would have been enough to save my family,” she said.
HANDs!-on disaster prevention
While it’s true that some disasters, like tsunamis, are beyond human control, others like floods and landslides could actually be prevented.
Environmental education consultant Robert Steele, a guest speaker at the HANDs! Programme, said sustainable practices could help protect communities from some disasters.
“We deforest a slope to plant rubber trees and think the slope should be okay,” he said.
But because a rubber plantation does not provide the same layers of protection as a forest, the impact of rain on the soil is much heavier, leading to a higher chance of landslides.
Inspired by all they have seen and learned, the HANDs! fellows were tasked with creating an action plan that they can implement when they return home.
The HANDs! programme emphasises making learning fun, so to get some real-life practice before implementing their action plans, the fellows came up with disaster education games for schoolchildren at the Yaowawit School.
Yaowawit School was originally set up to educate children affected by the tsunami, but now caters to underprivileged children.
Gilang’s group created arguably the most popular game among the children – “Super Rope Rescue”.
Based on learning how to tie different types of knots, the game allowed the children to recreate a water rescue with long ropes and empty plastic bottles, which they did repeatedly, with screams of glee.
Behind all the fun and games, of course, was a serious message full of hope: Young children and the wider community play a vital role in reducing the impact of natural disasters, even preventing some of them.
“This is a cool project,” said Gilang. “Hopefully this experience will be my stepping stone to making something creative and educational that will save lives in the future.”
And as the 24 fellows dispersed across Asia to their homes, it can be safely said that their communities share Gilang’s hopes.
HANDs! Project fellow Yeo said Malaysians need disaster preparedness and education in light of the almost-yearly flash floods that sweep the nation.
The HANDs! fellows learned to make disaster education fun through games like Super Rope Rescue, which teaches children to conduct water rescues.