Children displaced in a changing climate

Anna Triponel

October 16, 2023
Our key takeaway: Millions of children are displaced by weather-related disasters exacerbated by climate change, such as floods, storms, droughts and wildfires. According to UNICEF, there were 43.1 million internal displacements of children over the last few years, which amounts to 20,000 child displacements per day. The children who are most vulnerable are those who live in high risk areas - those susceptible to weather-related disasters - but have little pre-emptive evacuation measures in place. The voices of the children who are living through these disasters are captured in this report put together by UNICEF and Patrick J McGovern Foundation. Through these voices, we understand how extreme weather events severely impacts their health and wellbeing - including through long-term impacts that extend into adulthood. Impacts include physical and psychological trauma, such as malnourishment, anxiety and depression, which can evolve into chronic illnesses and sometimes result in death. The interconnections between human rights and climate change, and children as a particularly vulnerable group sitting at this intersection, has never been clearer.

UNICEF and Patrick J McGovern Foundation published Children displaced in a changing climate: Preparing for a future already underway (October 2023):

  • Mapping disaster-related displacement of children: The report maps the number and location of children most affected by climate-related displacement. There were “43.1 million internal displacements of children linked to weather-related disasters over the last six years - the equivalent to approximately 20,000 child displacements per day.” Out of this total, 95% were driven by floods and storms. The Philippines, India and China recorded the highest number of displacements due to weather-related events in absolute terms, but “implement pre-emptive evacuations in times of disaster.” On the other hand, South Sudan and Somalia experienced the greatest number of displacements from floods relative to the size of the child population and record far fewer pre-emptive evacuations. The results demonstrates that (1) there are some countries like the Philippines, which “are at high risk of weather-related disasters - which may grow in frequency and intensity as the climate changes – but are taking measures to minimize displacement risk”; and (2) there are other countries “where disaster risk is high, but pre-emptive evacuations are few and far between” and these “are where children and their communities may be most vulnerable.” According to the report, “it is in these countries, where risk mitigation, adaptation and preparedness – including embracing pre-emptive evacuations and other climate mobility options to save lives and minimize any disruption to children’s access to essential services – will be most critical.”
  • The human rights impacts of weather-related displacement on children: The report brings to life stories from children all over the world who have been displaced due to floods, storms, droughts and wildfires. It is from their experiences we know that weather events, exacerbated by climate change, severely impacts children’s human rights and can lead to fatalities. Two-year-old Sabirin became severely malnourished after being on the road with his mother and siblings for seven days with no food and shelter in order to escape the drought conditions in Somalia. According to the report, “Sabirin was one of 44,000 children admitted for treatment for severe acute malnutrition in August 2022” and, to this day, “a child is admitted to a health facility for severe acute malnutrition every minute.” In California, wildfires are growing in intensity and frequency. This negatively impacts the health and wellbeing of children: “[M]any children who live through them are experiencing lasting psychological trauma such as anxiety, depression and post- traumatic stress disorder.” These symptoms can worsen and affect them well into adulthood: “If not managed, their emotional trauma can affect their physical health, potentially leading to chronic health problems, mental illness and substance use.”
  • What can companies do? The report issues a call to action to the private sector, governments, donors and development partners to work together and do the following: (1) “PROTECT children and young people from the impacts of climate change and displacement by ensuring that child-critical services … are shock-responsive, portable and inclusive”; (2) “PREPARE children and young people to live in a climate-changed world by improving their adaptive capacity and resilience and enabling their participation.” This involves “strengthening the ecosystem that supports children and young people to develop green skills and entrepreneurship in green sectors” and generating green jobs; (3) “PRIORITIZE children and young people – including those already uprooted from their homes – in climate, humanitarian and development policy, action and investments.” This can include the following: i) “Prioritize child-sensitive DRR [disaster risk reduction], community early-warning systems and anticipatory action to minimize risk”; ii) “Leverage displacement-sensitive situational and risk analysis to inform DRR and preparedness plans”; and iii) “Engage local governments, affected communities, and children and young people themselves in DRR and planning for displacement.” Companies can also look to the future and understand what weather-related disasters are most likely to happen, which includes riverine floods, cyclonic winds, and storm surges, and where, so that they can put in place risk management plans to help them address these in the near future.

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