A Gathering Storm
Lydia Baker examines the effect of climate change on children
Traditionally, climate change has been perceived as an environmental issue with images of polar bears and deforestation dominating the headlines. Yet the of climate change extend beyond the environment with far reaching impacts on people and especially children.
A study conducted by Save the Children, argues that climate change is the biggest health threat to children of the 21st Century. The study explores the links between climate change and child survival and how the poorest, most vulnerable children will be increasingly exposed to the diseases and conditions that are predicted to increase as a result of climate change.
Shaikh Mohir Uddin/Driknews
Today, nearly 9 million children (3.8 million from Asia) die before they reach the age of five. Children from the poorest families are dying primarily as a result of a small number of diseases and conditions, pneumonia, measles, diarrhoea, malaria, HIV and AIDS and a number of neo-natal conditions, with malnutrition as a contributing factor in 22% of child mortality cases in Bangladesh. Climate change will not only increase the prevalence of diseases that kill children, it will also impact on existing vulnerabilities such as poverty, poor health systems, water and sanitation and food security.
Greenhouse gas emissions are already resulting in rising sea levels, water shortages, drought and the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters. Children are the hardest hit by these devastating changes: their access to education, protection, hunger, health and chances of survival are increasingly at risk from climate change. Today:
-Two million children under five die as a result of diarrhoea. Around 85,000 of these deaths are attributable to climate change.
-Malaria kills one million children every year. Around 44,000 of these deaths are attributable to climate change. By 2080, an additional 260-320 million people will be affected by malaria.
-Malnutrition contributes to the death of 3.2 million children every year. Around 150,000 of these deaths are attributable to climate change. By 2080, climate change could increase the numbers of people going hungry by 550 million.
-There is an average of 400 natural disasters a year. This is predicted to increase by as much as 320% in the next 20 years affecting 175 million children every year.
Bangladesh is a country on the frontline of climate change. Every year, between 30 and 70 per cent of the country is flooded. The country is regularly hit by disasters including cyclones, landslides and even droughts. In fact, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that Bangladesh is the sixth country in the world most susceptible to flooding. Salt water from the Bay of Bengal has already penetrated 100km or more inland along tributary channels during the dry season and if sea levels rise by one metre, 18% of Bangladesh's total land would be inundated, creating a recipe for disaster for children.
From my work in Bangladesh, I know that children are already being affected by climate change. And while no single event can be linked with certainty to climate change, it is clear that it is adding to existing vulnerabilities and putting additional pressure on the poorest people who have the least resources to cope and adapt. Take Sheema for example. She was only fourteen when she married her husband. Like thousands of other people living in Dhaka, Sheema's family migrated to the city when her family lost their home to river erosion and consequent flooding, associated with climate change. When Sheema lived in Barisal, she used to go to school, but she had to drop out when their family home was destroyed by river erosion and they moved Dhaka, where they now live in an inner-city slum.
“My family couldn't afford to send me to school in Dhaka,” Sheema, now 19, said. “I worked in a ready-made garment factory.”
Soon after she married, Sheema became pregnant with her first daughter, Sadia, now four, and later gave birth to Sumaiya. The family lives in a one-room house in one of the oldest slums in Dhaka, and share a toilet and cooking area with at least 20 other families. Sheema is ill with tuberculosis and her husband struggles to cover the rent. She desperately wants her children to go to school and have the opportunities she didn't have.
While children in Bangladesh are already experiencing the effects of climate change, Bangladesh has shown that investments in disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA) can save lives and livelihoods on a massive scale. When CCA and DRR investments are child-centred and children are directly involved in identifying the risks they face and what should be done about it, interventions are significantly more effective and tailored to the needs and rights of children. Going forward, adaptation planning must ensure that children are involved.
Save the Children's study goes on to suggest that future investments in health and water and sanitation systems should be 'climate proofed' to ensure they can withstand the impacts of climate change in the future. For example, adding 4% to the cost of building a hospital can ensure it is safe when a natural disaster strikes. Furthermore, social protection is an essential intervention that has proven experience of reaching the poorest and most vulnerable people. Social protection involves a range of interventions including cash transfers, vouchers that can be exchanged in exchange for food or cash and child benefits. The interventions have a critical role to play in building resilience to climate change and tackling chronic poverty and malnutrition. Social protection should be scaled up to cope with the impacts of climate change.
The world's children are not responsible for climate change, yet they are the ones who are and will continue to be hardest hit. And yet the impact of climate change on child survival still struggles to command political and public attention. This needs to urgently change so that the most vulnerable children are given a fighting chance of survival.
Lydia Baker is a climate change and disaster reduction Specialist