Children in 98% of African Countries at High or Extreme Risk from Climate Change – UNICEF
“All countries and virtually all children” are affected by substantially heightened risks brought on by climate change, the UN Children’s Fund said.

The health, development and safety of children in 98% of African countries are severely threatened by the effects of climate change, according to a new report by UNICEF. 

The report, published ahead of the start of the Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi on Monday, found that children in 48 of the 49 African countries for which data is available are at “high” or “extremely high” risk from the extreme weather, illnesses, pollution, and environmental degradation caused by climate change. 

Children living in the Central African Republic, Chad, Nigeria, Guinea, Somalia and Guinea-Bissau face the highest threat, according to the report. In Somalia, over 20,000 children under the age of five died last year amid the extended drought in the country, according to UN estimates. In Chad, nearly 40% of children under five are stunted, according to the World Food Programme. 

The countries most at risk from climate change also have weak health, nutrition, and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services, according to the report. This makes children in these countries even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as they are less able to access basic services such as safe drinking water, education, and protective services during extreme weather events.

“It is clear that the youngest members of African society are bearing the brunt of the harsh effects of climate change,” said Lieke van de Wiel, Deputy Director of UNICEF’s Eastern and Southern Africa region. “They are the least able to cope, due to physiological vulnerability and poor access to essential social services.” 

The report follows revelations made by the Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative, which includes UNICEF, in June, which found that just 2.4% of investments by multilateral climate funds (MCFs) in Africa directly support children.

UNICEF estimates that one billion children globally are at “extremely high” risk of suffering from the impacts of the climate crisis, which the organization has called a “children’s rights crisis”.

Weather extremes threaten children from all sides 

Overall Children Climate Risk Index (CCR) score by country in Africa.

Children are disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, as their developing immune systems, behavioural characteristics and developmental needs make them more susceptible to diseases, food insecurity, water scarcity and air pollution. 

In the northern part of Africa, children are more exposed to risks related to water scarcity and air pollution, according to the report. In the western and eastern parts of the continent, children are more exposed to risks related to vector-borne diseases, heatwaves and riverine flooding.

Water and soil pollution, meanwhile, affects children across the entire continent. The risks of tropical cyclones and coastal flooding, however, are concentrated in specific coastal regions, the report said.

Climate change is also driving child labour, child marriage, extremism and forced migration, which can expose children to human trafficking, gender-based violence, abuse and exploitation, the report said. 

“Children and their families hit by one crisis may be able to absorb the shock provided the crisis is not too severe,” said UNICEF. “However, when they are hit by a second, a third and other subsequent shocks within a short span of time their coping mechanisms can become exhausted.”

A UN Development Programme report published earlier this year found that the promise of economic opportunity, not religious ideology, is the leading driver of violent extremist groups in Sub-Saharan Africa. Climate change is accelerating the expansion of these groups, with devastating impacts on the rights and security of women and children.

Extreme weather has destroyed crops and fish populations around Lake Chad, pushing young men in the region to turn to extremist groups like Boko Haram in search of income to feed themselves and their families.

The lake, which straddles the borders of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, has shrunk by more than 90% in the past 40 years due to climate change, overfishing and pollution. This has led to widespread food insecurity and poverty in the region.

“Present and future generations of children will bear the brunt of the intensifying effects of the climate crisis over the course of their lifetime,” said UNICEF. “These impacts are already occurring.”

Children must be heard in the climate conversation

The right of children to participate in climate decisions that will affect their future is enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child.

Africa has contributed very little to the carbon emissions that are at the root of the climate crisis. As of 2022, Africa as a whole has emitted just under 50 billion metric tons of CO2, less than 3% of the 1.73 trillion metric tons emitted since the turn of the twentieth century.

This is especially true of the continent’s children: around 40% of Africa’s population was under the age of 15 in 2022, making it the world’s youngest continent. Another 20% of Africa’s population is under the age of 25.

This youth is Africa’s “greatest natural resource” in the fight against climate change, according to UNICEF. The agency added that the right of children to participate in decision-making that affects their future is recognised under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“Children are not only victims,” said UNICEF. “Despite this, children’s voices and perspectives are rarely heard or considered in the decision-making processes fundamentally shaping their future.”

“Their ideas, creativity, and skills need to be taken seriously and become integral parts of the solutions, including policy and financing,” the agency said. “The time to act is now.”

Chance for action in Nairobi at the inaugural Africa Climate Summit

African leaders will have a chance to act on UNICEF’s findings at the inaugural Africa Climate Summit, which opened Monday in Nairobi, Kenya, under the auspices of the African Union.

Over 20 African heads of state are expected to attend the summit, Kenyan Environment Cabinet Secretary Soipan Tuya told Al Jazeera. The summit, which is running in parallel to Africa Climate Week, expects around 30,000 delegates to be in attendance.

Kenyan President William Ruto billed the summit as a chance for Africa to define its position on the ways “humanity should engage in effective action to save this planet from a climate catastrophe” and “lift hundreds of millions out of poverty.”

Ruto said he hopes to rally African leaders around the Nairobi Declaration on Green Growth and Climate Finance, which is set to be the key outcome of the summit. The declaration is a blueprint for a “new green industrial age” in Africa based on an “ambitious green growth agenda and climate finance solutions”.

Securing new financial commitments from wealthy nations and holding them to their $100 billion climate finance goal set out in 2009 at COP15 in Copenhagen will be a major focus of the summit.

The list of high-profile attendees of the Africa Climate Summit includes UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, US climate envoy John Kerry, COP28 Director-General Majid Al Suwaidi, and COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber.

“Climate action is not a Global North issue or a Global South issue,” said Ruto. “It is our collective challenge, and it affects all of us.”

Image Credits: UNICEF.

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