child survival

Climate Change: The Biggest Issue Of Our Time

The impact of climate change on kids has increased spectacularly over the last ten years. It's now a concern that has huge ramifications for how families live.

Vivien Maidaborn UNICEF NZ Executive Director, asks when we will begin to prepare for the inevitable migration from Climate Change

The impact of climate change on children has increased spectacularly over the last ten years. What started as a discussion between the academic and scientific communities has rapidly evolved into a practical concern, one that has real life ramifications for families and how they live.

The development of clean water and sanitation systems in remote Pacific countries is being unpicked at an alarming rate by climate change. It means hard won gains are being lost to warming waters, salt in freshwater supplies and reduced landmass for growing food.

Wherever we see the effects of climate change, we see people forced to relocate, and right at this moment, we’re seeing an unprecedented movement of people within certain countries.

A country like Kiribati is a good example — it is a tiny, island nation spread across an area roughly the size of Australia. Imagine 120,000 people flung across an expanse of ocean that vast increasingly being forced to leave their home islands for other islands.

 
When people are forced to move, children are especially vulnerable, some don’t go to school and some become displaced.

Kiribati is already a country prone to disaster from not insignificant tropical storms. The way that water supplies work on these islands is freshwater floats on top of saltwater. The highest point of the island is only two metres above sea level.

The water table rises, the water gets salty and people can no longer survive. They move or they send children to live with family on Tarawa, the main island of Kiribati. It is because of this that Tarawa now has the greatest population concentration in the whole Pacific.

When people are forced to move, children are especially vulnerable, some don’t go to school and some become displaced. The occurrences of violence or sexual predation, against girls in particular, often increase. The rights of children, nurtured gently over generations, are suddenly lost.

Our current project in Kiribati aims to improve sanitation and water systems above all else. It is a country where the main form of toileting has been open defecation. You go to the beach and do your business, the tide comes in and washes everything away. The rising water table means, however, that the gap between saltwater and freshwater is reduced, essentially people are now soiling their own water supply.

 

The open defection system is also strongly related to the numbers of women and girls who are violated while going to the toilet. It is important to get safer toilet systems in place, if only as a form of protection. For children this becomes the difference between there being a place where they grow in safety and security or none at all.

It is naive to think that only these people will be affected by climate change; all of us will be. The global water system is a closed system. It won’t be long before the effects being felt in the Pacific are felt here, and our world begins to fall apart as well.

A big part of this process involves working with local people to identify which toilet will work for them. Kiribati consists of a population largely unused to toilets and the solution has to be something the people will want to embrace.

It is naive to think that only these people will be affected by climate change; all of us will be. The global water system is a closed system. It won’t be long before the effects being felt in the Pacific are felt here, and our world begins to fall apart as well.

Unless we come to grips with the first affected people — and that involves asking hard questions and talking about possible solutions — then greater disaster will only result as the effects of climate change spread across the globe.

Tekua, 10, sits on a dead coconut tree in the village of Tebunginako, Abaiang Atoll, South Tarawa, Kiribati

The Pacific Ocean is our neighbourhood, warming waters across those oceans are naturally going to affect us sooner rather than later. The salt that affects people in the outer islands of Kiribati, for instance, also affects farms in Hawke’s Bay. It is the same ocean.

People living in the Pacific will want to come to New Zealand, and as we currently have no laws that take into consideration climate change refugees, we need to have that conversation.

As neighbours of the Pacific, we all need to ask ourselves, where do those people go? We need to question how we are going to make that a respectful, loving journey, rather than one of great desperation.

The time is now to ask that question, but before long the ability to explore that question respectfully will disappear. We need to have the gumption and courage to face that question head on and figure out how to live together within this new reality.