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One in three children are exposed to severe water scarcity

The Climate Changed Child: One in three children exposed to severe water scarcity
28 November, 2023
The climate-changed world – with dwindling water supply and inadequate water services – is also changing children, altering their mental and physical health, a new report warns.

One in 3 children – or 739 million worldwide – already live in areas exposed to high or very high water scarcity, with climate change threatening to make this worse, according to a new UNICEF report.

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.

The Climate Changed Child – released ahead of the COP28 climate change summit starting this week in Dubai – 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. It provides an analysis of the impacts of three tiers of water security globally – water scarcity, water vulnerability, and water stress.

The report 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.

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.

Generally, they breathe faster than adults and their brains, lungs and other organs are still developing.

“The consequences of climate change are devastating for children,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “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. Children are demanding change, but their needs are far too often relegated to the sidelines.”

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According to the report findings, the greatest share of children are exposed in the Middle East and North Africa and South Asia regions – meaning they live in places with limited water resources and high levels of seasonal and interannual variability, groundwater table decline or drought risk.

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 2022, 436 million children were living in areas facing extreme water vulnerability. Some of the most impacted countries include Niger, Jordan, Burkina Faso, Yemen, Chad, and Namibia, where 8 out of 10 children are exposed.

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

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

By 2050, 35 million more children are projected to be exposed to high or very high levels of water stress, with the Middle East and North Africa, and South Asia currently facing the biggest shifts.

Despite their unique vulnerability, children have been either ignored or largely disregarded in discussions about climate change. For example, only 2.4 per cent of climate finance from key multilateral climate funds support projects that incorporate child-responsive activities.

At COP28, UNICEF is calling on world leaders and the international community to take critical steps with and for children to secure a livable planet. 

“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.”

On Monday, the United Nations chief urged world leaders to take decisive action to tackle ever-worsening climate change when they gather at the COP28 summit.

"We are trapped in a deadly cycle," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. "The solutions are well known. Leaders must act to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, protect people from climate chaos, and end the fossil fuel age."

Guterres spoke ahead of the summit where 70,000 people are expected to attend the largest United Nations climate summit ever. National negotiators at COP28 will grapple with flashpoint issues, including the future of fossil fuels — oil, gas and coal — and financial aid from rich polluters for the poorer nations most vulnerable to accelerating climate disruption.

But the summit's central focus will be a damning stock-taking of the world's limited progress towards curbing the pollutant greenhouse gas emissions fuelling the climate crisis.

"It is profoundly shocking to stand on the ice of Antarctica and hear directly from scientists how fast the ice is disappearing," Guterres said after visiting the region to prepare for the summit. "The cause of all this destruction is clear: The fossil fuel pollution coating the Earth and heating the planet.  

"Without changing course, we're heading towards a calamitous three-degree Celsius temperature rise by the end of the century," he warned. "Leaders must not let the hopes of people around the world for a sustainable planet melt away. They must make COP28 count."