Besides Hispaniola itself- the second largest island in the Caribbean, Haiti and the Dominican Republic share one more thing in common - their seismic fault lines.
The two nations have a long history of earthquakes in addition to their vulnerability to hurricanes and cyclones.
As Haiti continues to make a slow recovery from the catastrophic earthquake that devastated the nation two years ago, its neighbour Dominican Republic is bracing itself to be better prepared for future disasters.
Beneath the surface of the tropical resort nation lie two major seismic faults, both of which are a cause of concern for disaster experts. The southern Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault crossing from Port-au-Prince into the southern Dominican Republic is believed to have caused the quake that razed much of the Haitian capital. The worry is the fault may still be active.
The northern Septentrional fault also traverses through the two countries. Even though it has been relatively quiet in recent times, experts believe it warrants attention as reduced activity may suggest a build-up of energy and a potential large earthquake in the future.
Almost one of every ten oceanic tsunamis generated in the last 500 years in the world have occurred in the Caribbean. In 1910 a strong earthquake destroyed much of the south of Dominican Republic including Barahona, Azua and San Cristobal provinces. The Haiti earthquake of 2010 generated a 12cm tsunami as far as Santo Domingo, seven hours' drive away from its epicentre to the west of Port-au-Prince. On 5 January this month, an earthquake of 5.3 magnitude struck the Dominican Republic with its epicenter just 34 miles west of capital Santo Domingo.
Unlike cyclones and hurricanes which are a regular seasonal occurrence, big earthquakes usually happen after long gaps sometimes skipping generations. This is why despite huge loss of human life - such as several thousands in case of Haiti two years ago, earthquakes gradually disappear from public memory with very little shared knowledge on how to react and save lives.
"We are focusing on seismic hazard precisely because very few people have life experience of dealing with it and that makes them more vulnerable as there is no one to tell them what to do," says Daniel Stothart, National Disaster Management Adviser of child rights organisation Plan International in the Dominican Republic.
Plan has been working in the Dominican Republic since 1987 and has been running disaster risk reduction programmes in different provinces of the country for over four years. Participation of the communities, especially children and young people is at the centre of Plan's approach.
At a state school in Azua the earthquake drill is in full swing. A teacher sounds an alarm indicating tremors. The children immediately get under their desks and hold themselves in brace position. As the teacher signals that tremors have subsided a public announcement is made and children make a beeline to assemble in the playground outside.
Children like 9-year-old Moises are being trained to save their own and lives of others during earthquakes. "I have never experienced an earthquake, neither has anyone of my friends or family members. But now I know what to do and how to react if it ever happens," he says. All students and teaching staff of Proyecto 2C school participate in regular drills facilitated by local Plan volunteers. Besides training the children are given easy-to-follow learning material, sometimes in innovative game formats, to take home and share with their families.
'Riskland' is one such board game, where players learn what they can do to reduce the impacts of a disaster by answering questions related to different disaster scenarios. The players advance along the board's winding path with every right answer. The questions and rules of the game can be adapted to the specific conditions of each community.
"It is very important that both children and parents to have disaster training. I know that children and young people in my school are better informed and prepared than many adults on how to react to disaster situations. What is even better is that they are teaching their families about it," says school Principal José Nicolas Diaz.
Approaches like involving communities to minimise the impact of disasters are key to Dominican Republic where a large proportion of about 10 million population are vulnerable to hazards due to inadequate planning and poor constructions. Poor quality construction, lack of access to drinking water, difficulties in public transportation and contamination of natural resources are some of the great challenges that communities face in their daily lives undermining their capacity to confront disasters.
"By end of this year we aim to reach over 16,000 people in Barahona and Villa Central urban areas alone as part of DIPECHO (the disaster preparedness programme of the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid department) programme focused on seismic hazards," says Stothart. The focus on urban centres is mainly due to greater risk posed by population concentration and poor design and construction.
With scant state resources and rudimentary machinery to deal with disasters, it is down to youth volunteers such as 19-year-old Junior Nuñez who are playing a frontline role in disaster risk reduction. A law undergraduate, Junior has been a Plan volunteer for over two years and spends almost all his free time doing rounds of communities in nearby villages keeping people up to date with disaster training and information. Equipped with a walkie-talkie radio set, he is in constant touch with the local civil defence. "I am just multiplying the knowledge I gained through intensive training by Plan over the years," he says. "I know communities have the first opportunity to respond in a disaster and quick action can save lives."
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