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Effects of climate change on children

Drinking unclean water puts children at risk of diseases such as malaria, dysentery and dengue fever.
Drinking unclean water puts children at risk of diseases such as malaria, dysentery and dengue fever.

What’s a little bit of water, right?

But when a little rain, which is often initially welcomed, comes day after day and week after week — the water does become a problem. It drowns and rots the crops, kills livestock, causes rivers to overflow, causes landslides (that then destroy homes and communities), and increases the risk of diseases like malaria, dysentery and dengue fever.

In the last year, tens of millions of children and families have been directly affected by flooding – hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes. Since July alone, massive flooding has destroyed swaths of land across Sudan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso, Mali, Benin, Zambia, Malawi, Bolivia and — most recently — Ecuador.

Flooding, in most cases, is caused by excessive rains. Excessive rains are caused by atmospheric and climate changes. And changing climate patterns are, at an increasing rate, caused by global warming — also the root of increased droughts around the world.

The effects of climate change, while felt globally, have the most effect on those in developing countries — countries with high levels of poverty and malnutrition, weak health infrastructures and political unrest. Children, among the most vulnerable, face the greatest threat. Climate change is expected to affect over 175 million children annually by 2010.*

Effects of climate change on children’s health

What do you do when you lose your crops, your livestock and your home? You become “displaced” — you move on and, in the case of many children and families, you move to the closest shelter or temporary camp.

Forced from her home in India last August by repeated flooding, Kanti Devi (a mother of three) told us: “Today we are moving to another place. All of us having to move out are seeking refuge in the stadium or on people’s front porches. Everybody is nervous and scared. The children are frightened of snakes and leeches. So far, none of my family has fallen ill, but children as young as six months are suffering from fever and diarrhea.”

By their very nature, temporary camps and shelters lack the comforts of even the most rudimentary home. In addition to suddenly finding themselves without the familial and community social systems they are so used to, children displaced to such camps face health risks associated with overpopulation, little to no sanitation, lack of safe water, poor shelter and exposure to elements, and inadequate nutrition.

Responding to climate change and promoting healthy development choices

Plan is well-positioned to provide immediate, and long-term, emergency relief assistance to children and families affected by flooding and other disasters, including hurricanes and tsunamis.

Within the first 48 hours, Plan works with other local and international agencies to complete needs assessments. We’re also among the first to help set up camps for those displaced, including providing tents, food, water, medical assistance, treated bed nets and other basic supplies. Providing safe water and adequate sanitation are two of the biggest concerns in camps, where polluted water and poor hygiene pose daily threats to the youngest and most vulnerable.

But providing the basics is not enough. Having access to safe, clean water and latrines will do no good if those using the water and latrines don’t practice safe hygiene and sanitation.

To this end, Plan also provides awareness-raising and education to children and their families in camps (as well as in the communities where we work) on sanitation, hygiene, health and disaster-prevention. Child Health Camps, for instance, serve both to provide a much-needed social and educational environment for children and to increase awareness about health issues.

In the words of one child club member, “During the flood, diseases like diarrhea were breaking out, but through Plan’s programs we’re able to educate our friends and neighbors about disaster prevention and reduction. Now we are aware of the importance of a proper toilet and chlorine-tested water.”

Suresh Pokharel leads Plan’s Water and Environmental Sanitation (WES) response program in Dili, East Timor where camps are set up for families displaced by political and social instability. He says that water and sanitation work are maybe the most crucial during the emergency phase: “A good sanitation program obviously needs to be in place for any constructive change to happen around the camps. It is possible to survive a conflict but, in a sense, decent sanitary conditions need to be in place to survive peace. If people are sick, it adds economic strain — then increased crime. Further tension or conflict will always be a likely consequence.”

So, what's a little bit of water?

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* From a draft paper by Dr. Sheridan Bartlett, due for publication in Environment and Urbanisation Journal, June 2008