Floods cast spotlight on education’s climate risks

Flooding has disrupted schooling in parts of the country as above-normal rainfall continued this month.

Schools were closed during the festive holiday period, when all nine provinces experienced heavy rainfall. But in Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal, pupils missed the first day of the academic year when floods brought the town to a standstill.

Road closures, structural collapses and flooded buildings and homes stopped children from going to school, suggesting the need to future-proof education and children against the risks of climate change. 

A report titled Safe Schools: The Hidden Crisis, by the global children’s charity Global World and released in 2018, analysed the effect of disasters on children. 

It listed three threats — the environment, conflict and violence. 

The report estimates that, in 2018, 550 million schoolchildren who live in low- and middle-income countries were experiencing conflict, violence and have high vulnerability to natural disasters. That number is expected to increase to 622 million by 2030.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, nearly half of the world’s children are in countries at high risk of extreme weather events associated with climate change. This includes Southern Africa where intense cyclones in recent years have displaced people, disrupting children’s lives. 

The Covid-19 pandemic and the associated lockdown of schools exposed the need to address inequalities in education, according to Human Rights Watch. 

Educationists believe that climate disruptions as a result of current and future extreme weather events and disasters will pose the same difficulties for schoolchildren and expose inequalities that will have lasting consequences for children in developing countries. 

Human Rights Watch’s research into the effects of school closures found that not all children had the tools and resources needed to continue learning. Learners from low- and middle-income homes were more likely to be excluded from distance online learning because they did not have access to the internet and other technology.

“Every conceivable sector will be affected and education is one of them. We have seen how education was and still is disrupting basic education and higher education. Higher education was perhaps better prepared to deal with disruption, but basic education not at all,” said professor of environmental law and researcher, Loretta Feris.

“The DBE [department of basic education] should ensure that each school has a risk framework that includes risk from the impacts of severe weather resulting from Climate Change. Identifying the risk, anticipating the risk and managing and mitigating the risk. Every school should have a business continuity plan,” she said, adding that if Cape Town ran out of water in 2018 all pupils would have probably been forced to stay away from school. 

“While this can be part of an overarching climate resilience policy, I actually think that education faces risk from multiple sources and climate change is only one of them, hence the need for a broad risk framework.”

Nicholas King, an environmental futurist, believes the government can do more to build resilience against climate disasters such as fires, drought, heatwaves and flooding that will disrupt children’s education. 

“We know we have natural disasters but these are not natural anymore. We need to up our game in understanding what these extremes are going to be and then building resilient infrastructure,” he said

It would come down to basic things such as raising bridges that were built to survive a flood every 100 years but should now be built for floods occurring every 10 years

“We have children being washed away on those bridges. The kids are not only going to be impacted by disrupted education but there is extreme mental trauma for some in their formative years.” 

Kings’ report on what climate change means for South African youth focuses on the damage public service infrastructure such as roads, water and sanitation, health, education and electricity services will take. 

He argues that as these stresses on infrastructure compound, service delivery will almost certainly decline, especially access to electricity and water, and health and education services for children. 

“Disaster relief will be increasingly over-stretched and unable to reach most people,” he wrote.

King recommends that because disrupted schooling will create a reliance on internet connectivity, South Africa’s education department could introduce free data, for instance. A master plan and a budget for implementation was needed to build resilience to climate change in education. 

“But it must reach provincial governments because the impacts will be different for different people. In some parts of the country you will get more floods while other regions will be hotter and drier. In some places it will be so hot we have to consider whether they [learners] should stay in a classroom, as well as the fact that they will walk in the sun,” he said.

Tunicia Phillips is a climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa

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Tunicia Phillips
Tunicia Phillips is an investigative, award-winning journalist who has worked in broadcast for 10 years. Her beats span across crime, court politics, mining energy and social justice. She has recently returned to print at the M&G working under the Adamela Trust to specialise in climate change and environmental reporting.

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