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Securing a Future with Safer Schools: Building Resilience in Pacific Schools


  • The January 2022 volcanic eruption and tsunami – called a ‘once in 1000-year event’ is the latest in a long list of recent disasters to have hit Tonga and cause significant disruption to Tongan children’s education.
  • The World Bank’s Pacific Safer Schools Program is working with governments, construction industries and NGOs in Tonga, as well as neighbouring Samoa and Vanuatu, to strengthen and protect each country’s school buildings and infrastructure.
  • This work includes physical improvements to buildings, as well as systematic change to ensure buildings are better and more frequently maintained and stronger materials are used in construction; with the ultimate goal of preventing Pacific children from losing vital days of learning.

The eruption – and subsequent tsunamis – of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai underwater volcano in Tonga was a ‘once in a 1000-year event’ that caused damages and losses of an estimated US$182 million or 36.4% of Tonga’s GDP. The impact of this catastrophic event has been far-reaching; affecting at least 85% of Tongans. However, the disaster also highlights how Tonga’s early planning and prioritization of resilient investments has saved lives, protected properties and will enhance recovery efforts.

Following a request from the Government of Tonga, the World Bank was able to quickly disburse US$8 million in emergency funding that will help with the restoration of critical infrastructure. Yet, as donors, families and the public help respond to ongoing recovery efforts, this event highlights the importance of disaster risk mitigation, preparedness and continued ex-ante investments in long-term resilience. For school infrastructure in the Pacific, there is still much work still to be done.

In Vanuatu, primary school students attend lessons in temporary tents as their classrooms remain unsafe.
In Vanuatu, many primary school students attended lessons in temporary tents as their classrooms were either damaged or destroyed by Tropical Cyclone Pam in 2015. © Global Partners in Education

Too many learning days lost

Each year, thousands of children in the Pacific miss out on school when their classrooms are either damaged or destroyed by natural hazards. School children attending school in makeshift tents is an all too familiar sight in the aftermath of disasters across the Pacific region.

School buildings and other education infrastructure are disproportionately impacted by natural hazards in the Pacific when compared with other types of infrastructure. For example, when Tropical Cyclone Gita hit Tonga in 2018, 72% of schools were damaged, compared with 35% of houses. With 109 schools either damaged or completely destroyed, the education of approximately 23,000 students was severely impacted.

Recent modelling estimates that natural disasters cost the Tongan education sector on average US$7.38 million per year, the equivalent of 1.5% of Tonga’s GDP. These heavy costs divert the Pacific Safer Schools Program is working in partnership with the ministries of Education in Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu to improve the safety and resilience of schools.Pacific Safer Schools Program is working in partnership with the ministries of Education in Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu to improve the safety and resilience of schools. In each country, the program has partnered with the construction industry and with NGOs such as the Red Cross, to better understand the drivers of risk to schools, to integrate risk reduction into existing and planned education infrastructure, and to transform school infrastructure planning, construction, and maintenance practices.

The question over which schools get priority

Key elements of school infrastructure risk include a school’s location, the quality of building design, materials, and construction workmanship, as well as how regularly and well buildings are maintained. These factors all contribute to the vulnerability of a building and how likely it is to withstand the forces of natural disasters.

In 2021, assessments of over 6,000 school buildings across Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu found that between 50 to 90% of buildings may not withstand a strong cyclone or earthquake.  Common issues identified include poorly maintained, corroded, and insufficient roof strapping, inadequate steel reinforcement and the use of unwashed beach sand in construction. In addition, methods for storing information on buildings and assets, as well as the irregularity of infrastructure assessments have hindered efforts to prioritise maintenance, retrofitting and new construction.

The Pacific Safer Schools Program is helping overcome some of these challenges. Through user-friendly, risk informed asset registers, the program is supporting governments to prioritize resilient school infrastructure investments to make the most of the limited resources available, particularly given school infrastructure makes up a significant proportion of government-funded infrastructure.

Tonga’s Prime Minister – and current Minister for Education and Training – says the support for prioritization makes a significant difference.

“Through this prioritisation, we can then invest the resources available or what we believe will have the most impact on the education system in Tonga to ensure it’s more resilient,” said Tonga’s Prime Minister, the Hon. Hu'akavameiliku Siaosi Sovaleni.

Technical Surveyor, Taniela Taufalele (left) and his team, assess the strength and foundation of school classrooms.
Technical Surveyor, Taniela Taufalele (left) and his team, assess the strength and foundation of school classrooms in Tonga. ©World Bank

Stronger communities equal stronger schools; and vice versa

However, education ministries are not operating in isolation, and government budgets often need to prioritise funding teachers, leaving very little for school maintenance. This is where Parent-Teacher Associations and school communities play an important role in the basic maintenance and upkeep of school buildings for safer learning environments for students.

In the Pacific school communities, including diaspora and ex-students, make significant contributions to basic school maintenance and materials. In Tonga, for example, a shared responsibility model between the Ministry of Education and school communities – one that builds upon the strengths and relationships that are already in place – is proving to be vital for collective ownership over maintenance. However, more work is needed to coordinate contributions, raise awareness of good maintenance practices and build capacity of government staff and school communities to better manage these critical assets.

“Through the production of resources including maintenance posters, training materials, a television commercial, and a drama presented by the Red Cross, we want to continually highlight the importance of maintenance in a light-hearted way,” explained Andrew Hurley, Municipal Engineer at the World Bank. “This work aims to empower school communities to take necessary actions in the lead-up to the annual cyclone season.Students in Tonga are significantly impacted by natural disasters that results in an estimated 100,000 school days lost in Tonga every year.

Students in Tonga are significantly impacted by natural disasters that results in an estimated 100,000 school days lost in To
Students in Tonga are significantly impacted by natural disasters that results in an estimated 100,000 school days lost in Tonga. ©World Bank

Getting to work to protect Tonga’s next generation

The work is just beginning, and a ‘whole of system’ approach will be needed to address such a significant challenge of ensuring Pacific children have safe, secure places to learn – even during or in the aftermath of cyclone season, says the World Bank’s Andrew Hurley.

The World Bank is currently preparing a US$35 million emergency finance package to support Tonga’s post-disaster recovery and reconstruction needs, including building more disaster resilient schools.

“Prioritizing school upgrades, dedicated asset management staff, school communities that have the skills to maintain their assets, and the delivery of resources towards school building maintenance; these are all immense challenges,” said Hurley. “Yet this is about the education of hundreds of thousands of children across the Pacific and securing their future. It’s work that we believe wholeheartedly in.”

His thoughts are echoed by Tonga’s Prime Minister:

“I do hope that the students will have a safer learning environment so that they can focus more on learning, rather than being worried about whether it’s going to be there tomorrow or next week when the next cyclone comes around.”

As part of the Global Program for Safer Schools, the World Bank Pacific Safer Schools Program is supported through the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery. Technical Assistance to this program has been provided by Risk, Engineering and Development.  The World Bank-funded Tonga Safe and Resilient Schools Project also builds on work undertaken through the World Bank’s Pacific Resilience Program to support work to improve the resilience of Tongan schools. 


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