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Every job but their own

Writing about education issues in our country is taxing, because much of it boils down to identifying a lot of shortcomings, bad priorities and poor decision making. We spent the past two years talking about the rollout of the poorly thought-through Single National Curriculum which has hurt more than helped education, about the effects of Covid-induced school closures, and when schools reopened, about dropouts and learning losses.

And yet, what compels me is the disconnect between claims of action by political and public figures, the crumbs they are throwing the way of rehabilitating schools in flooded areas for which they demand ‘credit’ and the scale of destruction facing schools in flooded areas.

In the coming weeks, as the flood waters gradually recede and we will undoubtedly hear of even greater devastation from areas that are as of yet inaccessible, casualty and damage figures will continue to rise. While I acknowledge that flood affectees have many other more pressing immediate needs, this piece is narrowly focused on education.

First, let us quantify the physical damage known this far. According to numbers reported by provincial departments of education, as of the time of this writing, 1,180 schools in Punjab suffered damage. In Sindh, out of 23,419 schools in flooded areas, 15,842 (69 per cent) have been damaged. As far as we know, in Balochistan, probably the hardest hit province, 1,677 and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 1,024 schools are damaged. That makes for a total of 19,723 schools that we know of so far. More than 5,500 schools are being used as emergency shelters right now.

If these numbers seem overwhelming, bear in mind that we are still only talking about public schools. The private, community and madrassah school tally is, as of yet, unreported and is on top of all of these. Parts of Swat, Chitral and Kohistan remain inaccessible. Water has not completely receded in Sindh where another spell of rains is expected so the full scale of damage and assessment of cost of reconstruction is expected to rise.

Disruption has already forced postponement of some exams and interrupted classes even where schools are not damaged. Where schools may have been spared, education could be disrupted because the infrastructure needed to reach those schools (ie: roads and bridges) have been washed away. Loss of livelihoods in households will force even more families to pull children out of schools. Separate reports put the number of children that are affected by floods at three million.

Other educational facilities affected include colleges, technical vocational institutes and universities. We know that the University of Swat campus was inundated. Agriculture universities that conduct research and experimentation around crops, livestock and veterinary science suffered. Like schools, university infrastructure is also doubling as emergency shelters in many places.

One could go on about the physical damage to school education infrastructure, but in addition to that, there is the mental, emotional and psychological well-being of teachers, children, and their families. That also has a bearing on learning and will impact the future life trajectories of many. An HBO documentary (‘Katrina Babies’, HBO) shows that even 15 years later, children and teenagers who lived through the 2005 hurricane struggle to deal with trauma experienced at ages as young as three years old.

The close brush with death, losing loved ones, homes and entire communities, the sight of the dead, the dehumanizing experience that unfortunately follows disasters and the sense of abandonment they felt was not addressed but stuck with them. Imagine what this may mean to children in flood-displaced communities – those who, outside of election season, are never on their government’s radar. We have no record of having dealt with such unquantifiables in the past.

Put aside the assurances from elected representatives and government departments of rebuilding from the damage and instead take a look at recent history to develop realistic expectations of how this crisis will be handled in the months and years ahead. Our perception of damage is restricted to the physical. Initial estimates of the cost of flood damage to education is being put at $12.5 million.

To curb our expectations of how quickly we can hope this and any future government to make good on promises of rebuilding and rehabilitation, let us put the figures we have of flood damage in recent historical context.

The earthquake of 2005 destroyed around 3,700 schools in KP. According to 2019 news reports, even 14 years later, some 1,800 schools were still not rebuilt. Some 760 schools were not even accounted for until as recently as 2014-15, and the department is still scrambling for funds to rebuild leftover schools in its current ADP schemes.

Between 2001 and 2010, the ‘war on terror’ caused the destruction of hundreds of schools in ex-Fata. Approximately 670 schools still await reconstruction to this day.

The 2010 floods damaged around 11,000 schools across Pakistan in many of the same districts. That flood, too, was called unprecedented. Even with the as-of-yet incomplete count, this year’s damage is approaching twice as many schools. Unfortunately, the way climate change is affecting our region, this year’s unprecedented flood may soon have to cede that title to another in the near future. Sindh is still rebuilding schools lost in the 2010 floods.

The bottom line is: our governments have a poor track record of prioritizing and rebuilding and rehabilitating education infrastructure after natural calamities in the past. Twelve years after the 2010 flood, and 17 years after the 2005 earthquake they could not rebuild the public schools that were lost then. There is no reason to believe it will be much different after this year’s flooding.

Instead of focusing on their sphere of responsibility after a natural disaster strikes, many government departments and organizations are too happy creating and participating in photo ops and being seen ‘doing something’. Climate change means there will be more unprecedented weather events in our future. Is it not high time now to reconsider how we should rebuild our schools – more climate resistant and, perhaps, relocate them to spots less likely to see flooding? Have relevant government departments bothered to consult civil engineering and architecture departments at local universities on flood, earthquake and climate change resilient designs for schools in mountainous, flood-prone, and plain regions? That would mean redesigning the tired old template used to put up government schools. Are local governments taking steps to relocate schools where needed?

If learning losses due to months (even years) of disruptions are going to be a norm, as they have been due to earthquakes, floods and pandemics, how shall we deal with learning losses? What if most school years will begin with a one- or two-month hangover due to damage caused to schools? Have relevant education departments developed a strategy to ensure those learning losses can be addressed by the end of the same school year? Have they consulted any experts? Have they even thought of this question? I am not aware of any effort at-scale worth mentioning on this front by any government entity.

The floods have displaced millions of people, many of whom will gravitate towards nearby urban centers, as they did in the aftermath of prior disasters. That means the populations of slum areas will grow. Sticking to educational matters, are relevant departments preparing for expected increase in student numbers in schools serving slum populations?

You only plan for things you prioritize, and you prioritize what you care about, and education and the well-being of (other people’s) children in public schools just is not one of those things. That is why you can see institutions doing everyone else’s job but their own. I give our collective attention span two months. After that, when you turn to any cable TV news channel, it will be like the floods never happened and we will be on to the new outrage of the day. Our per capita contribution in terms of carbon emissions may be small, and with it our culpability in climate change, but how we deprioritize education for the already marginalized children affected by the floods is on us.

Dr Ayesha Razzaque, "Every job but their own," The News. 2022-09-07.
Keywords: Education , Education infrastructure , Educational facilities , Education issues , Flooded areas , Swat , Chitral , HBO