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Children feel the heat

Fiona Macleod

Government policies inadequate according to Unicef report.

Despite being “disproportionately vulnerable” to the impacts of climate change, children are mostly invisible in the majority of South Africa’s climate change policies and programmes—at national, provincial and district levels.

A ground-breaking report released this week by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) says most climate change policies and programmes do not adequately recognise children’s vulnerabilities, specific needs and the role they can play as agents of change at the grassroots level.

“There appears to be a prevailing assumption in policy documents that children are not individual bearers of rights, but rather are subsumed within households and communities, and thus automatically benefit from those measures targeting vulnerable and poor families, as well as the economic and social development of communities per se,” it says.

“While children certainly can benefit from these measures, due to their particular vulnerabilities and household dynamics girls and boys are likely to be affected differently than other members of the household, and may require additional supportive measures or the creation of spaces in which they can become more active agents of change.”

Titled Exploring the impacts of climate change on children in South Africa, the report was based on a study commissioned and funded by Unicef South Africa in partnership with the department for women, children and people with disabilities and the department of environmental affairs. The study aimed to address a gap in knowledge about how climate change will affect child development and wellbeing across South Africa in the short-, medium- and long terms.

The analysis was divided into primary and secondary impacts. “Substantial changes in South Africa’s climate are likely through variables such as rising temperatures, changing patterns of precipitation and differences in the frequency and intensity of extreme events. Each of these changes will have significant direct physical impacts on children,” the report says.

Direct primary impacts could include injury suffered during unusually heavy rainfall or increases in infectious, vector-and water-borne diseases. They could also be indirect challenges such as rising food prices or conflict over scarce natural resources.

Secondary impacts are associated with the coping and adaptation strategies children are forced to adopt in response to climate change. These include changes in lifestyle and behaviour, families seeking other forms of temporary employment to supplement income and permanently migrating to exploit new opportunities, or adopting new livelihood practices. “These strategies are often undertaken over longer timescales, yet have significant and profound implications for child development and wellbeing.”

The report points out that half of all children live in rural areas. KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape contain 76% of all rural-dwelling children. Rural children are particularly vulnerable “because they lack access to adequate sanitation and water, housing, food, education and healthcare, which in turn has important implications for childhood development. “In urban areas, too, children face different development pressures caused by over population, poor urban planning and inadequate infrastructure, making them particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts.”

After providing a breakdown of the main impacts of projected changing weather patterns on children in different regions, the report points out that they are currently not targeted as a priority group in national disaster management laws. “The heightened risk of children to injury, abuse and neglect in the wake of disasters linked to climate change requires that corresponding laws and policies be more child-focused,” it says.

Despite their vulnerability, it is a mistake to think of children entirely as victims, the report adds. It points to growing global evidence about the positive role children can play in relation to climate change, from transferring knowledge to their households and communities and promoting positive change, to informing local-level planners about how to reduce the risks they face in relation to the increased likelihood of disasters. “Children not only have an interest in being part of decisions that affect their future, it is also their right to be involved,” says the report.

In South Africa, spaces for children to participate and become more actively engaged on issues related to climate change are starting to develop, although they are still limited in scope and scale. Some initiatives, supported by schools, have already sparked the enthusiasm of children and adolescents to become more active voices on climate change and the protection of the environment. “The next step is to incorporate these initiatives in local policy spaces where the voices of children can be heard, to inform better planning and to ensure a better focus on children’s adaptive capacity.”

Effective communication is needed because studies show that the basic principles of climate change are not well understood by many children, and indeed by the adult population in general in South Africa. A national survey conducted in 2007 found that 22% of youths aged between 16 and 24 years had never heard about climate change or global warming before. Twenty-three percent had heard about it, but knew nothing or hardly anything about climate change.

“While there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding climate change in South Africa, two things are known: first, that change is a certainty; and second, that in order for policy decisions to support children and households in adapting to these changes successfully and sustainably, action is required now,” the report says.

It recommends effective representation and meaningful participation of children as a good starting point, but adds that representation has to move on from passive referencing in development plans to active integration and mainstreaming within all relevant decision-making processes. “Children must be formally recognised as a unique social group, and formally represented—including through their own participation—in the climate change policy development process, as well as in processes to advance South Africa’s commitment to disaster risk reduction.”

Options suggested to integrate children’s issues at provincial and local levels include involving them in integrated development plans and adaptation strategies. Social development services need to become an integral part of provincial and local government adaptation plans, with a clear identification of the protection risks children face in the case of climatic events.

This would require, for example, establishing child-safe central gathering points in the case of an emergency where social workers, health workers and other support services can have easy access to children and children can be protected. Additional measures should include raising awareness of risk through campaigns, develop drills and evacuation procedures as well as promote early warning mechanisms.

“Change will not only be driven by the national government, but rather provincial and local governments and other development actors will play an important role in developing and implementing plans that are relevant for children,” it concludes. “Actions are needed across all scales to address the multidimensional needs of children in responding to climate change.”

Stop running away
On a sweltering day in Roodepoort last week, young club members of the Girls and Boys Education Movement gathered to discuss how climate change affects them and what to do about it. “My family comes from a farming community. Drastic changes in weather patterns like heat, floods and droughts will make our crops fail and we won’t be able to feed ourselves,” said Bonolo Bonokoane.

A grade 11 learner at Princess High School in Gauteng, Bonokoane’s favourite subjects are biology, physical science and geography, so she is informed about climate change. But she says the government needs to do much more on social media, TV and radio to open the eyes of most South Africans.

“People are taking climate change lightly,” she told the Mail & Guardian. “Not many people want to change their ways. They don’t know how their habits are harming our world.” More eco-friendly lifestyles are urgently needed, she said. “I have stopped littering completely and at home I rush around switching off all the lights not being used. Now I am trying to convince my mom to buy a hybrid car, but she’s not too interested.”

If she went to COP17, she would tell world leaders about how climate change affects the youth. “Future generations will be affected the worst. Governments need to come up with a strategy. If they don’t do it now, the impacts later will be very traumatic for everyone,” said Bonokoane.

Seipati Matlapeng is also in grade 11 at Princess High School and a member of the movement club. Assisted by Unicef and the department of education, the movement aims to give young learners access to skills and information, and to provide them with a space where they can discuss issues that matter to them such as climate change.

Growing up in Meadowlands, Matlapeng said she had found that changing her lifestyle was not as drastic as it originally sounded: “It’s about little things like having the power off for an hour or so, switching off the geyser and using low-voltage bulbs.”

The impacts of climate change, such as extreme weather and changing weather patterns, would get worse because of the cavalier way people were behaving with carbon emissions, she said.

“They will only notice the fall-out when they stare the effects in the face, but by then it will be too late. Climate change is happening really fast and we need to tackle the challenge full-on and stop running away from it.”

Don’t think just of yourselves
Jackie Shabangu and his classmates really notice weather fluctuations because they go to school in pre-fabricated structures that offer little protection against the elements. The classrooms at Simunye High School in Bekkersdal were supposed to be temporary structures, but have been there for 20 years and accommodate about 2 500 learners.

“Now that the weather is becoming more extreme, we just can’t cope. For the past three years the department has declared it an underperforming school,” he said. His school is based in western Gauteng, where research indicates potential floods and heavy rainfall caused by climate change will damage even well-built, sturdy schools and exacerbate learner absenteeism.

Learners at Simunye High are drawn from surrounding farming and mining communities, as well as informal settlements. They are the kind of children identified as highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change in Unicef’s new report.

For these reasons Shabangu and other members of the Girls and Boys Education Movement club at his school have chosen to focus on the environment and climate change. They are raising awareness among fellow learners and their communities, as well as trying to help alleviate the effects of climate change, said Shabangu.

Last week they popped into the offices of the district council to challenge officials and elected representatives about their plans for dealing with climate change. “They were very interested in what we had to say and gave us a platform to run an integrated greening programme next year,” Shabangu said.

His plans include planting trees and developing waste management strategies. Today’s leaders need to realise that the youth have to be part of finding solutions to climate change, he added. “They are old and we are young, we are the future. They need to keep us informed about what they are doing.”

Talking about COP17, he said it was about time the negotiators working on the Kyoto Protocol came up with a workable agreement, “because their decisions don’t only affect them and those contributing to harmful greenhouse gas emissions—they affect everybody.”

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