Climate change Major threat to children’s health
Climate change, once perceived as an
‘environmental’ issue, has far-reaching impacts on the health and
survival of people - especially the world’s poorest children
The reality today is that nearly nine million children each year die
before they reach the age of five. The vast majority of these deaths -
97 percent - occur in low-or middle-income countries, and
disproportionately within the poorest communities and households. Most
children are dying as a result of a small number of diseases
A Kenyan carrying a stricken animal. Pictures:
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and conditions including malnutrition, pneumonia, measles, diarrhea,
malaria, HIV and AIDS, and neo-natal conditions.
Against this backdrop, recently climate change was described as the
biggest global health threat of the 21st century. It will affect
children’s health in a range of different ways.
It will increase the prevalence of diseases most likely to kill
children, as well as undermine the foundations for child survival:
functioning health systems, women’s education and empowerment, food
security, clean water and safe sanitation.
While no-one will be immune to the effects of climate change,
children from the poorest families in low-and middle-income countries
will be at particular risk.
This is especially true for children under the age of five, who make
up between 10 percent and 20 percent of the total population in many of
the countries predicted to be most affected by climate change. Children
in this age group often have less immunity to disease and infection,
putting them at further risk.
Diarrhea, for example, claims the lives of around two million
children under the age of five each year. A lack of access to water and
sanitation is responsible for around 90 percent of these deaths and, as
climate change will substantially reduce water availability, the
caseload of diarrhea is predicted to increase by between 2 percent and
10 percent by 2020.
A baby with diarrhoea
As children, especially those under age five, are by far the largest
group who die as a result of diarrhea, they will carry the majority of
No-one will be immune, but the poorest children will be at particular
Malnutrition is an underlying cause in the death of 3.2 million
children each year, and 178 million children suffer from malnutrition.
Some of the countries with the highest rates of malnutrition in the
world, including Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India and Vietnam, are also
predicted to be some of the worst affected by climate fluctuation in the
Not only will climate change affect the availability of food in some
of the world’s poorest countries, it’s expected to push up food prices.
This is particularly worrying for children from the poorest families,
as access to food depends not only on its availability but more
importantly on a family’s ability to buy it.
Poor families often spend up to 80 percent of their income on food,
and even then, this is rarely sufficient to provide their children with
a healthy and nutritious diet.
Severe climatic events
Beyond the direct effects of climate change on disease and
malnutrition, natural disasters which already affect the lives of
millions of people every year and pose unique threats to children’s
health and nutrition - are becoming more frequent and severe. This trend
is predicted to continue and gain pace, with the number of disasters
predicted to increase by as much as 320 percent in the next 20 years.
Parched ground in Kenya
Save the Children estimates that over the same period, 175 million
children will be affected each year by the kind of natural disasters
exacerbated by climate change.
From the drought that is affecting around 25 million people across
East Africa to the storms and floods affecting South-East Asia, the
reality is that these events will take an increasing toll on children.
In Wajir, North-East Kenya, where Save the Children is implementing an
emergency nutrition program, the failure of the rains again this year
has been a devastating blow to a pastoralist community living on the
edge of survival.
Eighteen-month-old Mahar, one of many children receiving treatment,
has been admitted to hospital on four separate occasions for
malnutrition. Like many others, Mahat’s family was relatively well-off
until the prolonged drought: they used to have more than 50 cattle; now
they have none. While doctors can treat Mahat’s illnesses with
antibiotics, the real problem is that there isn’t enough food at home to
help the child grow strong and fully recover. Mahat’s mother breaks down
into tears when asked what the future holds for her child.
Recent decades have seen severe drying in many parts of Eastern
Africa; this is the fourth year in a row that this part of Kenya has
experienced a severe drought. Climate projections show that across the
world this is a reality for which, increasingly, we must prepare. The
percentage of the earth’s land mass that suffers from severe drought
conditions has trebled in the past 10 years from 1 percent to 3 percent.
This figure is predicted to be 8 percent by 2020, and no less than 30
percent by the end of the century. Recurrent disasters undermine
resilience and reduce a family’s ability to cope and adapt to climate
change in the longterm. Unfortunately, without high levels of investment
in disaster risk reduction and measures to help the poorest countries
adapt to climate change, stories like Mahat’s will become increasingly
While the research evidence linking climate change with child
mortality is clear and mounting, there is still a lack of recognition
and focus on the particular issues facing children at international,
national and local levels. Children must not be seen as victims, but
they do face particular risks that must be recognized and addressed in
policies and programs that seek to reduce the impacts of climate change.
Program and policy response
Kenyans queuing for water
A baby suffering from malnutrition
The first step in addressing this challenge is to ensure that there
is quality, disaggregated information on the impacts of climate change
on children. This will help to inform programs and policies to support
adaptation, as well as bring the issue into the consciousness of
governments and the public. Second, while children are one of the
largest groups at risk from climate change, they are also an untapped
resource in many countries in that they have a strong role to play in
adaptation and risk reduction activities.
Save the Children implements child-centred disaster risk reduction
activities in more than 30 countries around the world, and our
experience shows time and time again the key role children play in
identifying appropriate activities, designing how they should be
implemented and getting communities and other children involved so the
risks associated with disasters are reduced. These sorts of
interventions need urgently to be scaled up to ensure that children
themselves can be in the driving seat for their own adaptation to
Other examples of best-practice interventions that have proven
experience in tackling the issues faced by children include direct
distribution of cash and vouchers to the poorest people to tackle
malnutrition and build resilience. Investment to ensure that health
systems including hospitals and clinics are “climate-proofed”, so that
they can withstand the impacts of climate change, is vital.
It will also be necessary to ensure that the international
humanitarian system is fit for purpose, so that when national capacity
to respond to a disaster is overwhelmed, international assistance moves
quickly and effectively to reach the most-affected people.
At all times, it must be remembered that children have played little
or no role in causing climate change. Yet they are the ones who will be
hardest hit and will have to face its impacts in the years to come. We
must all be ready to ensure that every child has the best chance of
survival in a future altered by climate change.