Water scarcity, pollution devastating children, says UNICEF ahead of Climate Change Summit

at 6:29 pm
Over 3 billion people live in agriculture areas with water shortages
Representational image of water scarcity

NEW YORK: Climate change is threatening devastating consequences for children across the world, with 1 in 3 children already living in areas exposed to ‘high’ or ‘very high’ water scarcity and suffering due to air pollution.

According to a new UNICEF report, the situation is projected to worsen for children despite which issue is ignored or disregarded at Climate Change discussions.

The report has been released ahead of the COP28 Climate Change Summit slated to start on November 30, with the UNICEF calling on world leaders and the international community to take critical steps with and for children to secure a livable planet.

As of now, 739 million children worldwide live in areas exposed to ‘high’ or ‘very high’ water scarcity and by 2050, 35 million more are projected to be exposed to such levels of water stress, with the Middle East and North Africa, and South Asia currently facing the biggest shifts, the report says.

Further, the double burden of dwindling water availability and inadequate drinking water and sanitation services is compounding the challenge, putting children at even greater risk, says the report titled ‘The Climate Changed Child’.

The report throws a spotlight on the threat to children as a result of water vulnerability, one of the ways in which the impacts of climate change are being felt, the UNICEF said in a media statement.

It provides an analysis of the impacts of three tiers of water security globally – water scarcity, water vulnerability, and water stress, the statement said.

The report, a supplement to the UNICEF’s Children’s Climate Risk (2021), also outlines the myriad of other ways in which children bear the brunt of the impacts of the climate crisis –including disease, air pollution, and extreme weather events such as floods and droughts, it says.

From the moment of conception until they grow into adulthood, the health and development of children’s brains, lungs, immune systems and other critical functions are affected by the environment they grow up in.

For example, children are more likely to suffer from air pollution than adults as they generally breathe faster than adults and their brains, lungs and other organs are still developing, it says.

“The consequences of climate change are devastating for children,” the statement quoted UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell as saying.

“Their bodies and minds are uniquely vulnerable to polluted air, poor nutrition and extreme heat. Not only is their world changing – with water sources drying up and terrifying weather events becoming stronger and more frequent – so too is their well-being as climate change affects their mental and physical health,” Russell said.

“Children are demanding change, but their needs are far too often relegated to the sidelines,” the UNICEF Executive Director said.

According to the report findings, the biggest percentage of children is exposed in the Middle East and North Africa and South Asia regions.

It means they live in places with limited water resources and high levels of seasonal and interannual variability, ground water table decline or drought risk, the report says.

Far too many children – 436 million – are facing the double burden of high or very high water scarcity and low or very low drinking water service levels – known as extreme water vulnerability – leaving their lives, health, and well-being at risk.

It is one of the key drivers of deaths among children under 5 from preventable diseases.

The report shows that those most affected live in low- and middle-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Central and Southern Asia, and Eastern and South-Eastern Asia.

“In these circumstances, investment in safe drinking water and sanitation services are an essential first line of defence to protect children from the impacts of climate change,” the UNICEF says.

Climate change is also leading to increased water stress – the ratio of water demand to available renewable supplies – the report warns.

“Despite their unique vulnerability, children have been either ignored or largely disregarded in discussions about climate change,” the UNICEF says.

For example, only 2.4 per cent of climate finance from key multilateral climate funds support projects that incorporate child-responsive activities.

At COP28, the critical steps that UNICEF wants for children include elevating their issue within the final Cover Decision and convene an expert dialogue on children and climate change.

Embedding children and intergeneration equity in the Global Stocktake (GST) and including children and climate resilient essential services within the final decision on the Global Goal for Adaptation (GGA) have also been sought by the UNICEF.

The global body, with the responsibility of safeguarding lives and rights of children, also wants the COP to ensure the Loss and Damage Fund and funding arrangements are child-responsive with child rights embedded in the fund’s governance and decision-making process.

Beyond COP28, UNICEF is calling on parties to take action to protect the lives, health and well-being of children – including by adapting essential social services, empower every child to be a champion for the environment, and fulfil international sustainability and climate change agreements including rapidly reducing emissions, the statement says.

“Children and young people have consistently made urgent calls for their voices to be heard on the climate crisis, but they have almost no formal role in climate policy and decision-making. They are rarely considered in existing climate adaptation, mitigation or finance plans and actions,” Russell said.

“It is our collective responsibility to put every child at the centre of urgent global climate action.”