UNICEF: Millions of children globally face water scarcity due to climate change

According to a UNICEF report, one in three children globally live in areas with limited access to water. It warns that the threat posed by climate change will worsen the situation by 2050 as 35 million more children are predicted to experience water stress.

By Sr. Titilayo Aduloju, SSMA

In a report by UNICEF, about “739 million children worldwide already live in areas exposed to high or very high water scarcity, with climate change threatening to make this worse”.

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 United Nations Children's Fund said.

The report, entitled The Climate Changed Child, released ahead of the COP28 Summit, provides an analysis of the impacts of three tiers of water security globally – water scarcity, water vulnerability, and water stress.

Impacts of climate change on children

UNICEF highlighted the countless other ways in which illness, air pollution, and extreme weather events like floods and droughts cause children to suffer the most from the effects of the climate crisis.

According to the report, “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.”

Since children generally breathe faster than adults and their brains, lungs, and other organs are still developing, they are more likely to suffer from air pollution than adults, the report stated.

UNICEF Executive Director, Catherine Russell, said “The consequences of climate change are devastating for children, (...). Their bodies and minds are uniquely vulnerable to polluted air, poor nutrition, and extreme heat.”

She also said “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.

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

Children and the plight of water scarcity

According to the report, the majority of children affected are in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia regions with low water resources, high levels of seasonal and interannual variability, declining groundwater tables, or a danger of drought.

“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,” the report stated.

UNICEF also lamented the greater number of children who are facing the double burden of high or very high water scarcity, which of course, put their lives, health, and well-being at risk.

“It is one of the key drivers of deaths among children under 5 from preventable diseases,” UNICEF stressed.

Provision of safe water and sanitation services

“Climate change is leading to increased water stress – the ratio of water demand to available renewable supplies,” the report warned.

If this continues, “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,”

Under these conditions, therefore, the provision of clean water and sanitation services is a crucial first step in protecting children from the effects of climate change.

UNICEF calls for intervention at COP28

Ahead of the COP28 Summit, UNICEF calls on world leaders and the international community to take critical steps with and for children to secure a liveable planet.

It advocated decisions at COP28 should include children, embed them in the Global Stocktake, and ensure child rights are embedded in the Loss and Damage Fund's governance and decision-making process.

UNICEF also urges COP28 to save children's lives, health, and welfare through adapting social services, giving children the tools to advocate for the environment, and reducing emissions.

Children’s voices should be heard

Despite their unique vulnerability, children have been either ignored or largely disregarded in discussions about climate change.

According to the report, “only 2.4 per cent of climate finance from key multilateral climate funds support projects that incorporate child-responsive activities.”

Russell stressed that “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,” she added.

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