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Bhutanese children at โ€˜riskโ€™ of impacts of the climate crisis – UNICEF

By Phurpa Wangmo

Young people living in Bhutan are among those at risk of the impacts of climate change, threatening their health, education, and protection, according to a UNICEF report launched this week.

โ€˜The Climate Crisis Is a Child Rights Crisis: Introducing the Childrenโ€™s Climate Risk Indexโ€™ is the first comprehensive analysis of climate risk from a childโ€™s perspective. It ranks countries based on childrenโ€™s exposure to climate and environmental shocks, such as cyclones and heatwaves, as well as their vulnerability to those shocks, based on their access to essential services.

The report states that Bhutan is carbon negative and while children in Bhutan are at a relatively lower risk to climate change in comparison to its neighbours, Bhutanโ€™s dependence on climate sensitive sectors such as hydropower and agriculture makes it vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

โ€œA large majority of Bhutanese depend on farming and forestry for their livelihoods, sectors that are prone to increasing climate induced hazards such as landslides, mudslides, and flash floods during monsoon. Many existing settlements are situated in increasingly hazard-prone areas such as steep slopes or flood-prone riverbeds, which expose them to high degrees of risk,โ€ it states.

Such climate and environmental hazards, the report points out, negatively affect childrenโ€™s access to key essential services, which reduces their resiliency and adaptive capacity, further increasing their vulnerability to climate and environmental hazards.

 โ€œThus, a vicious cycle is created, pushing the most vulnerable children deeper into poverty at the same time as increasing their risk of experiencing the worst and most life-threatening effects of climate change.โ€

Compared to adults, children require more food and water per unit of their body weight, are less able to survive extreme weather events, and are more susceptible to toxic chemicals, temperature changes and diseases, among other factors. Water scarcity and droughts can have multiple effects on poor families and communities. These deprivations can have both immediate and lifelong impacts. Undernutrition contributes to the severity of a range of diseases, and is responsible for nearly half of the deaths of children under five.

Water scarcity can also increase the incidence of a range of diseases. A reduction in the availability of fresh water for drinking and hygiene places children at an increased exposure to diseases such as cholera, typhoid, acute respiratory infections and measles. A child who lacks access to adequate water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities is more vulnerable to climate and environmental hazards, shocks and stresses.

In South Asia, the report reveals that young people living in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are among those most at risk to the impacts of climate change, threatening their health, education, and protection. In addition Nepal and Sri Lanka are among the top 65 countries most impacted globally. Approximately 1 billion children live in one of the 33 countries classified as โ€œextremely high-riskโ€, including the four South Asian countries. 

โ€œFor the first time, we have clear evidence of the impact of climate change on millions of children in South Asia. Droughts, floods, air pollution and river erosion across the region have left millions of children homeless and hungry, and without any healthcare and water,โ€ said George Laryea-Adjei, UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia.

โ€œTogether, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have created an alarming crisis for South Asian children. The time to act is now – if we invest in water, healthcare and education, we can protect their futures from the impacts of a changing climate and degrading environment.โ€

COVID-19 has added a new dimension to this challenge, but the recovery process is also an opportunity to reimagine a greener world for the children.

UNICEF Bhutan Representative Dr Will Parks said the findings reveal that almost every child across the world is exposed to at least one climate or environmental shock and provides evidence to invest in securing the wellbeing of children.

โ€œWe now have evidence that children are both physically and physiologically more vulnerable to survive environmental shocks, that they are more at risk of death compared with adults from diseases that are likely to be exacerbated by climate change, such as malaria and dengue. Any deprivation as a result of climate and environmental degradation at a young age can result in a lifetime of lost opportunity,โ€ Dr Will Parks said.

โ€œUNICEF hopes that these findings will help to prioritize action for those most at risk and drive positive change to ensure today’s children inherit a livable planet.โ€

The report also reveals a disconnect between where greenhouse gas emissions are generated, and where children are enduring the most significant climate-driven impacts.

The 33 extremely high-risk countries, including four from South Asia, collectively emit just 9 per cent of global CO2 emissions. Conversely, the 10 highest emitting countries collectively account for nearly 70 per cent of global emissions.

Without the urgent action required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, children will continue to suffer the most. UNICEF is calling on governments, businesses and relevant actors to:

Increase investment in climate adaptation and resilience in key services for children.

To protect children, communities and the most vulnerable from the worst impacts of the already changing climate, critical services must be adapted, including water, sanitation and hygiene systems, health and education services.

It also recommends to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis, comprehensive and urgent action is required. Countries must cut their emissions by at least 45% (compared to 2010 levels) by 2030 to keep warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Further, the report urges to provide children with climate education and green skills, critical for their adaptation to and preparation for the effects of climate change. Children and young people will face the full devastating consequences of the climate crisis and water insecurity, yet they are the least responsible. We have a duty to all young people and future generations.

It also states to include young people in all national, regional and international climate negotiations andโ€ฏdecisions, including at COP26. Children and young people must be included in all climate-related decision making could also help. Lastly, the report recommends to ensure the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is green, low-carbon and inclusive, so that the capacity of future generations to address and respond to the climate crisis is not compromised.

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