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Unit on Natural Disasters


Why teach about natural disasters (in particular bushfires)?

From bushfires on our doorsteps to cyclones in Oklahoma, from floods in Queensland to tsunamis in Japan, primary students are likely to have seen images on television and in newspapers of recent natural disasters and their devastating impacts on tens of thousands of people.

With around 400 natural disasters reported globally each year (Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (2009)), some students may even have experienced first-hand the impacts of natural disasters.

A natural disaster is the consequence or effect of a natural, hazardous event, occurring when human activities and natural phenomenon (a physical event, such as a volcanic eruption, earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, landslide, etc.) become enmeshed (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, n.d.). "Natural disasters result in catastrophic consequences for living things in the vicinity" (para. 1). Whether a natural process becomes a disaster depends ultimately on its location (Smith, 2006). Smith explains that "a large earthquake in the Hindu Kush may spawn no disaster whatsoever while the same intensity event in California could be a catastrophe" (para. 2).

As the world's population rises above seven billion (US Department of Commerce, 2013), and the population density continues to increase, including in disaster-prone areas (such as river valleys, coastal strips, along fault lines and adjoining bush land), it is important that students - the decision makers of tomorrow - understand the power and occurrence of significant natural processes. This is particularly true as our continent warms and the occurrence of some natural processes appears to increase.

It is also important that they understand what turns such natural processes into natural disasters. They need to have a feel for the kinds of preparations that need to be made to limit natural disasters, as well as the decisions that need to be taken when locating populations into the future, when developing areas, setting building codes, or managing environments.

In Victoria, a bushfire prone area, such knowledge will be particularly valuable to these students who may find themselves one day needing to prepare for, or manage, a natural disaster.

The importance of understanding the natural processes that operate across Australia (for example, rainfall, drought, flood, earthquake, cyclones and bushfires) is stressed in the Humanities (geography) domain of the AusVELS curriculum (Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 2013a). The curriculum for years five and six also requires students to look at how people react to these natural processes, "including their preparation for, and management of, natural disasters" (VCAA, p. 6).

This unit of work attempts to address this. It starts with students being introduced to and brainstorming a number of significant natural processes operating across Australia, before focusing in specifically on bushfires and the Black Saturday events which occurred in the lifetime, and on the doorstep, of current Victorian students.

The unit explores the impact of fire, and the Black Saturday fires specifically, on lives, ecosystems and communities. It takes Marysville as a case study, looking at how the people of this community have reacted to the disastrous fire of 2009 and rebuilt. It considers the range of community organisations which have helped this town on its path to regeneration, and focuses on developing awareness around the reasons why community organisations are such important recovery tools. The unit goes on to look at how communities prepare for bushfire, as well as at some of the big management issues these fires present.

It concludes with students taking action, informing others in their school communities about bushfires and the dangers they present, and organising a fundraiser for the children still struggling in bushfire-affected communities.

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