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Climate change, child poverty in Zimbabwe

In a Climate Change and Children study (2014), Sihle Motseti (not her real name), a 14-year-old girl from Hwange remarked, “When there is no food at home you cannot even talk to parents easily. Sometimes you cannot tell them that you have been sent away from school for non-payment of school fees because of fear of making them angry.”

So here is a family — to which Sihle belongs — already deprived and living in poor conditions even in the best of seasons, and now exacerbated by climate change impact on food security at the household level. This is the sad reality in Zimbabwe today, and in the rest of the world. It is now widely agreed that; “Unaddressed, climate change will harm the poorest and most vulnerable children first, hardest and longest.”

Young people, particularly those living in poverty, are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Climate change and child poverty are two defining issues of our time, and they are inextricably linked. Both are universal problems with devastating and lifelong impacts now and for the future. And Zimbabwe is no exception!

Major adverse impacts of climate change include: declining water resources, causing water shortages; reduced agricultural productivity, contributing to hunger; spread of diseases and turbulent weather and climatic disasters.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says child deaths represent 85 percent of the global mortality attributable to climate change.

Recent estimates by UNICEF indicate that over half a billion children worldwide live in extremely high flood occurrence zones and nearly 160 million live in high or extremely high drought severity zones.

In a study conducted by WHO in 2014, it was estimated that by the year 2030, climate change could be responsible for an additional 95 000 deaths due to childhood undernutrition.

Children living in poverty in Zimbabwe are deprived in several dimensions, for example health, nutrition, water, sanitation, shelter, protection and education. Children living in poverty and living in a physical location that is vulnerable to drought, floods and extreme weather events face an even worse fate.

This overlapping crisis of both poverty and exposure to climate related shocks, perpetuates a vicious cycle: a child — living in poverty — deprived of adequate access to services before a crisis will be more affected by the crisis, is less likely to recover quickly, is at even greater risk for subsequent climate related shocks, and is pushed deeper into the cycle of poverty, making it harder to escape. These children suffer irreversible impacts that affect their lifetime earnings and lead to the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Let’s take health for example. The main diseases that affect poor children in Zimbabwe (such as malaria and diarrhea) are diseases that are expected to expand with climate change. Small temperature increases could significantly affect the transmission of malaria.

Children have more rapid metabolisms, underdeveloped immune systems, and limited experience and understanding than adults; all of which leaves them poorly equipped to deal with deprivations and exposure to hazards.

Look at education or protection, and consider the impacts of climate change to these. It further emphasises the linkages which exist between child poverty and climate change. Consider educational achievement for the child who is withdrawn from school to earn an income and support their household which has been exposed to climatic extremes. This educational achievement will be compromised and the child will suffer long term impacts on their earning potential.

Regarding the child’s protection, for a child who has been displaced due to extreme weather events in his/her community, this child is now at heightened risk of family separation, of being orphaned and in the absence of adult protection, of exploitation, abuse, violence and neglect — and is subjected to the overlapping crises, the vicious circle perpetuated by climate change and child poverty.

Deprivations suffered by children living in poverty are exacerbated by climate change, and can last a lifetime. Fortunately, Zimbabwe has recognised this and has developed and endorsed a National Climate Policy that is supported by the National Climate Change Response Strategy, both of which incorporate the special needs of children and make specific references to poverty linkages associated with climate change impacts.

Critically important are also the development of the National Adaptation Plan (NAPA), and Low Carbon Development strategy developments as well as other policies aimed at achieving sustainable development.

The challenge now is to ‘action’ the intentions and spirit of the policy and strategic frameworks to help children like Sihle live a better life, have a better chance.

  • Amy Wickham is an environment and climate change officer at UNICEF Zimbabwe
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