When 12-year-old Swapna went back home the day after Cyclone Roanu hit Bangladesh in 2016 she could not believe her eyes – the entire neighbourhood, even the trees, had disappeared.
In Zimbabwe, drought left Emmanuel struggling to feed his family. He agreed to a dowry of a few goats for his 15-year-old daughter. It meant one less mouth to feed, food and livestock for the family.
Over in the state of Alaska, Amaia, 11, stands on an ice floe in July 2016. In recent years, big ice floes can be found farther from the shore as the sea ice starts melting earlier and faster.
The impacts of climate change are being felt around the world. For many children, a change in climate is felt through a change in water. In times of drought or flood, in areas where sea level has risen or ice and snow have unseasonably melted, children are at risk – as the quality and the quantity of the water they rely on is under threat.
In the coming years, the demand for water will increase as populations grow and move, industries develop, and consumption increases. This can lead to water stress, as increasing demand and use of water strains available supplies.
The world is on the brink of a deadly crisis, as the combination of water stress and climate change creates a dangerous outlook for children.
Children play 'hide and seek' in a graveyard on Tuvalu in the Pacific Ocean. Massive coastal erosion has caused many coconut trees to fall down. Islanders face coastal erosion, surface flooding, and saltwater intrusion into soil and groundwater.
Climate change is contributing to a growing water crisis, putting the lives of millions of children at risk
By 2040, almost 600 million children will live in areas with extremely limited water resources. That’s around 1 in 4 children worldwide.
A major factor in water stress will be a global increase in demand for water, driven largely by industrialization, population growth, demographic shifts, food production and increased consumption. Taking longer showers, cleaning cars, watering gardens and eating more meat – all take their toll.
In many of the regions projected to be hit hardest, we are already witnessing a water crisis unfolding.
Peia, 16, swims in the flooded area of Aberao village in Kiribati in 2014. Kiribati is one of the countries that has been affected by a rise in sea levels. During high tides many villages become inundated, making large parts of them uninhabitable.
Increasing droughts and floods threaten quality and quantity of water
Over the past 50 years, the average global temperature has increased at the fastest rate in history. In the 136 years NASA has been keeping record, all but 1 of the 16 hottest years have occurred since 2000. The hottest year on record? 2016.
When it comes to the world’s water supply, only a tiny amount (2.5 per cent) is actually fresh water, the type needed to sustain human, animal and plant life.
Sea levels are rising faster than before, and as they do, salt water can infiltrate water supplies and make the water undrinkable.
The higher temperatures also cause droughts and floods, and an increase in water-linked diseases.
Without water, children simply cannot survive. During times of drought, children not only risk dying of thirst, but also have less food and must walk longer distances to collect water. This means less time to go to school, study and play.
Often it is the girl in a family who is tasked with fetching water and who is the first to miss out on education. Instead of being in school, girls can spend hours fetching water, sometimes at risk of attack. If they are fortunate enough to finally get to school, they are often too tired to learn.
Globally women and girls already spend about 200 million hours a day gathering water. Thirteen-year-old Aysha, in Afar, Ethiopia, must trudge eight hours, round trip, to collect water for herself and her family. Watch a day in her life:
Droughts can have multiple effects on poor families and communities. Crops fail, livestock dies and income drops, leading to food insecurity for the poor as well as rising food prices. Such loss of livelihood can push families further into poverty and force them to migrate in search of water and food.
In 2016 Malawi faced its worst drought in 30 years, resulting in 6.7 million people needing food aid as of February 2017. One of the people affected was Teresa. After losing her husband, she has been struggling alone to look after her baby, who is suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Watch their story:
When water becomes scarce during droughts, many people resort to drinking unsafe water, putting children at risk of deadly diseases.
Water and sanitation related diseases are one of the leading causes of death in children under 5 years old. Every day, over 800 children under 5 die from diarrhoea linked to inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene.
In Lesotho, for example, the drought in 2016 caused many safe water sources to dry up, forcing families to search for unsafe alternatives and leading to an increase in diarrhoea cases.
In the event of floods, latrines and toilets can be destroyed or damaged, which can contaminate water supplies and make them unsafe to drink.
Children play on a fallen tree that came down during Cyclone Pam in 2015 on the outskirts of Port Vila in Vanuatu. The cyclone affected more than 60 per cent of the islanders, many of whom had not fully recovered from Cyclone Lusi the previous year.
The poorest and most disadvantaged children are most at risk
Flood and drought zones often overlap with areas of high poverty and limited access to essential services such as water and sanitation.
Many of the children and families who are disadvantaged by poverty are already suffering from the impacts of climate change.
This situation can create a vicious cycle: children living in poverty or deprived of adequate water and sanitation before a crisis will be more affected by a flood, drought or storm. They are less likely to recover quickly and at even greater risk in a subsequent crisis.
The number of floods and storms worldwide is increasing and evidence suggests that climate change is behind this upward trend. Out of the 15 countries in the world most at risk of disaster, 9 are in Asia and the Pacific – with Vanuatu as the most threatened.
Nine-year-old John lives in Vanuatu where Cyclone Pam hit in 2015. It affected more than 60 per cent of the islanders, many of whom had not fully recovered from Cyclone Lusi the previous year. John is afraid there is not enough food and water for him and his family. “When I grow up, I want to be rich,” he says. “I want to be so rich that I can buy food and I will still have some money left.” See John’s story:
This crisis is not inevitable, but we must act now
Today's children, and their children, will bear the brunt of climate change. We must work together to make sure children are at the heart of climate discussions and decisions – and to make sure their voices are heard.
One of the most effective ways to protect children now and in the future is to safeguard their access to safe water and sanitation.
“We expect more than words on paper and promises. We expect action,” said 16-year-old Getrude Clement to world leaders at the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement at United Nations headquarters in 2016.
Want to raise awareness about the impact of climate change on children and the water they rely on?
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