Study proposes involving secondary school students in natural disaster risk mapping and impact prevention

Scientists tested a participatory disaster risk monitoring strategy in a partially destroyed city in 2010 after an unprecedented flood. Credit: Miguel Trejo Rangel

Several natural disasters have afflicted various regions of Brazil since the beginning of 2022, ranging from deadly floods and mudslides due to abnormally heavy rains in the states of Minas Gerais, Bahia, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, to a severe drought in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. However, only 6.1% of its 5,568 municipalities have plans of any kind to mitigate the risk and impact of such disasters, according to a survey by IBGE, the national census and statistics office.

An article published in the journal Disaster prevention and management describes a project that could contribute to future disaster reduction programs. Supported by FAPESP, the study used a methodology involving the participation of the inhabitants of the areas concerned, in particular young people, to predict the risks and effects of floods, landslides and storms.

The aim was to develop a participatory process involving secondary school students, whose proposals were to be taken into consideration by local disaster response planners. Twenty-two students enrolled at the Monsenhor Ignácio Gioia State School in São Luiz do Paraitinga, State of São Paulo, between 2019 and 2021 participated in the project, alongside higher education students enrolled in the program of graduate studies on natural disasters at the State University of São Paulo. (UNESP), in partnership with the National Disaster Monitoring and Early Warning Center (CEMADEN).

São Luiz do Paraitinga, an important tourist destination in the Paraíba Valley region with a well-preserved historic center classified as a National Cultural Heritage Site and a long tradition of popular religious festivals, was partially destroyed in 2010 by floods that destroyed reaches 12 meters deep in some parts of the town. Reconstruction was followed by investments in de-silting rivers and stabilizing hills, among other projects.

“Until then, the third step of the staircase leading to the mother church was the highest level reached by the Paraitinga River when it overflowed. The flood on New Year’s Day 2010 covered the church and swept away century-old listed buildings to destruction, no one died, thanks in large part to the whitewater rafters who lived in the town and rescued more than 400 people overnight, before help even arrived. the importance of popular participation”, Victor Marchezini, sociologist, researcher at CEMADEN and principal researcher of the project, told Agência FAPESP.

In his doctorate. research conducted shortly after the disaster, Marchezini analyzed the obstacles to local participation during reconstruction and advocated for the implementation of methodologies aimed at involving local communities in disaster prevention programs.

“Without this involvement, people are unprepared and disaster responses are improvised,” he said. “We used São Luiz do Paraitinga as a living laboratory to think about prevention.”

In Brazil, at least 8.3 million inhabitants of 872 municipalities live in high-risk areas, according to the latest census carried out by the IBGE. Although the National Civil Protection and Defense Policy (PNPDEC, Law 12,608/2012) calls for community participation in preparedness, mitigation and recovery plans related to civil protection, there is no mechanism in the law to promote this participation. Only 6.8% of Brazilian municipalities told IBGE that they have community civil protection units.

Participation of school students

School students who participated received training and used aerial photographs of São Luiz do Paraitinga taken by drones to identify areas prone to flooding and landslides. They were asked to decide which segments of the community were most at risk and concluded, for example, that their own school was vulnerable, as well as a primary school and a nursing home. They plotted flood zones and other high-risk areas on a map of the city, also using information from areas flooded in 2010.

“These young people who took part in the mapping exercise were too young at the time to remember various aspects of the great flood, and we provided a means for one generation to learn from another,” said Marchezini.

Students used the mapping exercise to plan escape routes for future disasters and were asked to form five small groups who would plan and budget for disaster risk mitigation measures. Their proposals were shared with the local civil protection team and with Akarui, a non-governmental organization that promotes community participation in São Luiz do Paraitinga.

The work with the students of the school was led by Daniel Messias dos Santos, teacher in their secondary school and last author of the article. The first author is Miguel Angel Trejo-Rangel, a Ph.D. candidate at the National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

The main actions suggested by the students were the establishment of a communication committee for the municipalities of the Paraitinga river basin, including Cunha; land use planning to prevent people from building in risky areas; developing a smartphone app to send messages about disaster response initiatives; and developing a preparedness plan with the community.

The results were presented at an event organized in October 2021 and attended by students and representatives of the municipal government, civil protection and other bodies involved. Mayor Ana Lúcia Bilard Sicherle, who had also served as mayor in 2010, spoke about the importance of surveillance and monitoring to ensure no one returns to high-risk areas. “We now have a stronger civil defense team as well as more oversight mechanisms,” she said.

The methodology developed by the researchers will be included in CEMADEN Education, a program that brings information and projects to schools with the aim of raising awareness of disaster risks. The program has been recognized as an inspiring practice by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Research in Brazil and elsewhere highlights the link between climate change and extremely heavy rainfall.

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More information:
Miguel Angel Trejo-Rangel et al, Giving Voice to the Voiceless: Connecting Graduate Students to High School Students by Incubating DRR Plans through Participatory Mapping, Disaster prevention and management: an international journal (2022). DOI: 10.1108/DPM-03-2021-0100

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