The World's Children Need Clean Water, Clean Air and a Safe Climate

September 17, 2019

Climate change has the potential to undermine most of the gains made in child survival and development over the past 30 years. There is perhaps no greater threat facing the rights of the next generation of children. 

UNICEF and partners are working tirelessly all over the world to save and protect children. 

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The following is an excerpt from An Open Letter to the World’s Children by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore on the 30th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Dear children of today and of tomorrow,

It sounds obvious that all children need these basics to sustain healthy lives — a clean environment to live in, clean air to breathe, water to drink and food to eat — and it sounds strange to be making this point in 2019. Yet climate change has the potential to undermine all of these basic rights and indeed most of the gains made in child survival and development over the past 30 years. There is perhaps no greater threat facing the rights of the next generation of children.

Climate change is becoming a key force behind the recent continued rise in global hunger.

The Food and Agricultural Organization noted last year that climate change is becoming a key force behind the recent continued rise in global hunger, and as escalating droughts and flooding degrade food production, the next generation of children will bear the greatest burden of hunger and malnutrition. We are already seeing evidence of extreme weather events driven by climate change creating more frequent and more destructive natural disasters, and while future forecasts vary, according to the International Organization for Migration, the most frequently cited number of environmental migrants expected worldwide by 2050 is 200 million, with estimates as high as 1 billion.

As temperatures increase and water becomes scarcer, it is children who will feel the deadliest impacts of waterborne diseases.

As temperatures increase and water becomes scarcer, it is children who will feel the deadliest impacts of waterborne diseases. Today, more than half a billion children live in areas with extremely high flood occurrence and 160 million in high-drought severity zones. Regions like the Sahel, which are especially reliant on agriculture, grazing and fishing, are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In this arid region, rains are projected to get even shorter and less predictable in the future, and alarmingly, the region is warming at a rate one and a half times faster than the global average. In the Sahel, the climate gets hotter and the poor get poorer, and it is all too common for armed groups to exploit the social grievances that arise under such pressurized conditions.

In the Sahel, the climate gets hotter and the poor get poorer, and it is all too common for armed groups to exploit the social grievances that arise under such pressurized conditions.

These challenges will only be compounded by the impact of air pollution, toxic waste and groundwater pollution damaging children’s health. In 2017, approximately 300 million children were living in areas with the most toxic levels of outdoor air pollution — six or more times higher than international guidelines, and it contributes to the deaths of around 600,000 children under the age of 5. Even more will suffer lasting damage to their developing brains and lungs.

And, by 2040, one in four children will live in areas of extreme water stress and thousands will be made sick by polluted water. The management and protection of clean, plentiful, accessible groundwater supplies, and the management of plastic waste are very fast becoming defining child health issues for our time.

On March 29, 2019 in Mozambique, Dorinda Antonio and her son, Manuel, arrive by boat in Beira from Buzi, one of the areas most severely affected by Cyclone Idai. © © UN0320717/Oatway

Why There Is Hope

To mitigate climate change, governments and business must work together to tackle the root causes by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. Meanwhile, we must give the highest priority to efforts to find adaptations that reduce environmental impacts on children.

Governments and business must work together to tackle the root causes by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. Meanwhile, we must give the highest priority to efforts to find adaptations that reduce environmental impacts on children.

UNICEF works to curb the impact of extreme weather events including by designing water systems that can withstand cyclones and saltwater contamination; strengthening school structures and supporting preparedness drills; and supporting community health systems. Innovations such as Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR) schemes — if deployed at scale — could preserve reservoirs of clean water to protect millions of children from the dangers of water scarcity and disease.

Even in complex environments like the Sahel, there is hope — it has a young population, hungry for work and opportunity, and the climate offers vast potential for harnessing renewable, sustainable energy sources. With investment in education and employment opportunities, improved security and governance, there is every reason to feel optimism for the region’s ability to develop climate change resilience and adaptation.

UNICEF works to curb the impact of extreme weather events including by designing water systems that can withstand cyclones and saltwater contamination; strengthening school structures and supporting preparedness drills; and supporting community health systems.

To turn the tide on air pollution, governments and business must work hand in hand to reduce fossil fuel consumption, develop cleaner agricultural, industrial and transport systems and invest in scaling renewable energy sources. Many governments have taken action to curb pollution from power plants, industrial facilities and road vehicles with strict regulations. A 2011 study by the United States Environmental Protection Agency found that the country's 1990 Clean Air Act had delivered $30 of health benefits to citizens for every $1 spent. Such policies hold the key to protecting little lungs and babies’ brains from damaging airborne pollutants and particulate matter.

In the meantime, it is vital that we search for solutions that can ameliorate the worst effects of air pollution on child health. Mongolia’s capital city of Ulaanbaatar has among the most polluted air in the world during winter. The biggest source of pollution comes from coal-burning used by 60 percent of Ulaanbaatar’s population. UNICEF innovation experts together with the community, government, academia and the private sector have begun to design and implement energy efficiency solutions for traditional homes to reduce coal consumption and improve air quality, including by designing the “21st Century Ger.”

In Sangouine, Côte d'Ivoire, students play happily outside their new classroom made of recycled plastic bricks through a UNICEF partnership with Conceptos Plasticos, a Colombian social enterprise. © UNICEF/UN0334295/Frank Dejongh

And we are finding ways to recycle and reuse plastics in innovative ways as well, reducing toxic waste and putting rubbish to good use. Conceptos Plasticos, a Colombian social enterprise, has developed a technique to make bricks out of non-PVC plastics that are cheaper, lighter and more durable than conventional bricks — and is using them to build classrooms. Africa’s first recycled plastic classroom was built earlier this year in Côte d’Ivoire, in just a few weeks. It cost 30 percent less than traditional classrooms. This innovative approach of transforming plastic waste into construction bricks has the potential to turn a plastic waste management challenge into an opportunity, by addressing the right to an education with the construction of schools, empowering these communities and cleaning up the environment at the same time. 

The biggest reason for hope is because you — the children and young people of today — are taking the lead on demanding urgent acion, and empowering yourselves to learn about, and shape the world around you. You are taking a stand now, and we are listening.

Finally, the biggest reason for hope is because you — the children and young people of today — are taking the lead on demanding urgent action, and empowering yourselves to learn about, and shape the world around you. You are taking a stand now, and we are listening. You, the children and young people of 2019 are the leaders of the future. You inspire us.

We want to work together with you to find the solutions you need to tackle the challenges of today, to build better futures for yourselves and the world you will inherit.

Read the full text of UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore’s Open Letter to the World’s Children here.

UNICEF and partners are working tirelessly all over the world to save and protect children. You can help.  

PLEASE DONATE

 

Top photo: On February 25, 2019 in Bangladesh, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore speaks with a group of Rohingya children outside a learning center in the Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. © UNICEF/UN0284208/Lemoyne