Wilting: Ayakha Melithafa imagines a future of no flowers unless those in power act now and reduce carbon emissions to prevent temperatures from rising even further. (David Harrison/M&G)
Young people are demanding that governments act against climate change. Lester Kiewit spoke to a Cape Town schoolgirl, one of 16 children from 12 countries who laid a legal complaint at the United Nations
Ayakha Melithafa says that in a just and fair world everyone would have clean water, fresh air and enough food to eat. But the 17-year-old says that, because of climate change, unfair economic policies and greed, it is people who look like her — poor, black women — who are suffering the most.
She is one of 16 young people from 12 countries who last week laid a complaint with the Committee for the Rights of the Child, which receives and investigates complaints and monitors implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Ayakha, who goes to school in Cape Town, didn’t make it to New York last week, because of problems with the necessary travel documents.
Their petition was aimed at five of the G20 states — Germany, France, Argentina, Brazil and Turkey — saying that the countries have known about the threats associated with climate change yet are “knowingly causing and perpetuating the climate crisis”.
They want the committee — to which South Africa is a signatory — to find that “climate change is a children’s rights crisis”. If it does this, then the signatories would have to act to secure the rights of children. Because South African law requires that the country acknowledges international laws, especially when it has signed up to treaties, a finding could be binding here.
There are many hurdles to be cleared for such finding to be made, including that most UN findings are recommendations so countries can oppose or ignore them.
But the move by the 16 young people is a big legal step and it puts countries in a difficult position.
Ayakha joins Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, who started the movement Fridays for Future school strikes, which challenges governments and decision-makers to deal with the climate crisis.
The complainants, who range in age from eight to 17, told their stories of how climate change is affecting their lives.
For Ayakha, the effects of erratic, unpredictable weather are personal.
Her mother, who lives just outside East London in the Eastern Cape, is a small-scale farmer and has been heavily hit by drought over the past few planting seasons.
Ayakha says it is this kind of first-hand experience of climate change that showed her that it is real and needs urgent action to be taken.
“Normally in the Eastern Cape, my mom knows when to plant which vegetable. She knows how the weather will be. But since climate change is affecting us, we don’t really know when the rains will come,” says Ayakha.
This year, her mother couldn’t plant, which means no income, so her family will be hard hit.
“When the drought hit, and it started affecting livestock I saw all these animals die. And when a cow dies, that’s a lot of money. A full-grown cow is about R16 000. I saw my family lose all that money. My mom is supporting five children; she’s the only one working,” Ayakha says.
Last year, parts of the Eastern Cape were declared a disaster area because of the ongoing drought.
In February 2018, Parliament’s water and sanitation committee was warned that the lack of rain would not only affect the availability of drinking water but also the livelihoods of thousands of subsistence farmers who grow food to feed their families. The drought has continued.
This follows similar patterns experienced in much of the rest of the country.
Ayakha says the crisis in her home province is far worse than Cape Town’s “Day Zero” warnings of 2017, when the city came close to running out of water.
“When there’s a drought in the Eastern Cape, it doesn’t get the same attention as when there was Day Zero in Cape Town. Because the people of the Eastern Cape don’t know how to panic and complain to the government.
“So I want my people to know about climate change, so that they can make a noise and that they can be heard. People don’t know who to complain to.”
She says that’s why her mission is to educate people — especially young people in the rural parts of the country — about climate change.
“We need to make people aware. We need to educate more youth, even in the remote places in South Africa, and around the world, so they can stand up with us. We need them to share their heartbreaking stories about how climate change is affecting them,” she says.
The voices of young activists have been amplified in recent months. It is they who will face an uncertain future if rapidly rising temperatures and ocean levels continue unabated.
The schoolchildren’s movement is growing and pressure is being placed on governments to cut down on using fossil fuels and seek renewable forms of energy to help keep economies going.
“How can you live comfortably knowing that your child won’t have a future?” asks Ayakha.
“There are things that parents can do to help, move to renewables, install a solar panel. There’s a lot of small things you can do. Because it’s not the responsibility of the youth to be making these changes.
“It’s the adults who have the power to implement change so they must act now.”
South Africa is among the developing countries that are already being affected by the climate crisis.
The government’s 2017 climate change report warned of the effects of the crisis. “Increases in climate variability and climatic extremes are impacting both water quality and availability through changes in rainfall patterns, with more intense storms, floods and droughts; changes in soil moisture and runoff; and the effects of increasing evaporation and changing temperatures on aquatic systems.”
In short: less water and less predictable rainfall. This presents serious problems for farmers, and for cities whose populations are expanding.
Ayakha says: “I see my future being a desert. I’m seeing it being so hot that it will become uninhabitable and there’s no life or biodiversity. I see us going into extinction. So I don’t really see a future if there is no action now.”
She plans to study environmental law to educate people and to advocate for the environmental and economic rights of poor, rural people.
“I want clean oceans. I want breathable air. I want a prosperous future where we use renewable energy. I don’t want to see animals dying, and people living next to hazardous sites. I want to see people and an economy thriving. A future that is safe. And that’s the way it should be.”