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Putting Children within the Discourse of Addressing Climate Change in Africa

23 Jan 2013
Mounkaila Goumandakoye, Director and Regional Representative UNEP Africa; and Dr. Richard Munang, Regional Policy and Programme Coordinator at UNEP Africa,
The impact of climate change poses eminent danger to human wellbeing and development pathways in Sub Saharan Africa where the resources and capacity to respond are limited. This is going to get worse as warming in Africa is projected to be greater than the global annual mean, with an average increase of 3-4oC over the next century. This poses a serious challenge to social and economic development particularly because the economies of most African countries depend on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, water, fisheries, energy, tourism etc. About 70 million people and up to 30% of the Africa’s coastal areas could face the risk of flooding by the end of the 21st century due to climate change induced sea level rise; yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50 per cent; and about 25-40% of mammal species could become endangered or extinct by 2080, while 5,000 African plant species will be faced with substantial reductions in areas suitable for growth by 2085. Between 75 and 250 million people in Africa are projected to face increased water stress. This is likely to constrict economic growth and hamper measures for the timely delivery of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

Of the many in the continent who are critically exposed to these impacts of climate change are children. The effects of longer and more intense droughts, repeated floods and shifting seasons are severely hampering their education and creating community pressures that result in children being more at risk from economic exploitation. For example, many of the main threats to child survival like malaria, diarrhea and under nutrition are highly sensitive to climatic conditions and these are expected to worsen as a result of climate change (UNICEF 2008)1. The break in regular water supply, for example, is costing families on average three hours per day spent on the collection of water for a family of six in rural Africa2. As an activity predominantly carried out by children, long-distance search for water deprives children of other activities, including school attendance for children. Incidence of cholera has also been shown to increase with increasing distance away from water points, which reduces access to both safe water and sanitation.

Bringing everyone on board including children is urgently needed. Children have considerable strengths that are a significant resource for communities and organizations and they are also effective communicators of risk and drivers of change in their communities. To date, climate change decision making and response actions have paid little attention to how adaptation measures can be child-led and this has resulted in little institutional knowledge and information on child-led adaptation initiatives taken by children to reduce their communities’ vulnerability to climate change. Against this harsh reality, it is imperative to involve children in climate change adaptation that improves understanding of children’s capacity to take adaptive action and participate in decision-making.

Turning the Climate Crisis into an Opportunity in Africa: Children’s Place and Space

The current climate change crisis plaguing children may offer a window of opportunity if rightful actions/solutions are put in place with the ability of building both their social and physical resilience. Linking children’s local knowledge of changes, impacts and priorities with the work of climate change experts in relevant sectors, development and adaptation approaches, strategies and assistance are more likely to meet their needs. Their active participation in adaptation solutions can be a powerful force for change and resilience to climate shocks and stresses.

Involving Children with Actions that put Climate Change Adaptation into the Vision of National Development using Educational Programmes

Long-term solutions to climate change require measures that go beyond mainstreaming into policy. Actions that involve children and keep climate change agenda in the national vision of the country are crucial. Targeting programmes and training, especially those that integrate climate change into educational curriculum, offers the opportunity for achieving long-term solutions to climate change. Through a UNEP/UNDP Climate Change Adaptation and Development programme (CC DARE) with funds from Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, the development of educational curriculum for climate change adaptation, with pedagogic training of teachers to prepare them to use the materials, was carried out in four countries at different school levels. The flexibility of the Programme was such that the curriculum development activities cut across different levels of training, targeting primary, secondary and tertiary educations, and addressing both general and specialized educational training programmes. Following the geographical distribution of the curriculum development, huge opportunity exists for replication across other countries. There is need to put these curricula in sync and coherence with each preceding level in integrating climate change into educational programmes from primary through to secondary and tertiary levels.

Strengthening Child-led Adaptation

In Togo, working with children and the communities led to the rehabilitation of small dams for harvesting rainwater and this has resulted in improving access to water for the local communities for both domestic and agro-pastoral consumption and has also helped expand rural livelihood activities such as market gardening, brick construction and fisheries. The co-benefits of the project providing year-round water supply to the surrounding ecosystem, include natural regeneration and restoration of biodiversity serving as medicinal products for the household and dietary supplements for local communities. The developed capacity of children and lessons learnt through the above examples have proved that, through engagement in meaningful ways, children can be empowered and the knowledge they gain from such actions have high multiplier and spill-over effects that can catalyze large-scale policy formulation at local, sub national and national level.

Way Forward and Policy Recommendations

By and large, formulating and implementing policy for climate change that takes into consideration the roles of children and child-led adaptation that enable children to make a positive contribution to the process of risk reduction and climate resilient development is stymied by a double-decker: lack of child participation in decision-making and the complexity of issues related to climate change adaptation. Knowledge of the issues and meaningful participation from an early age can lead to an informed and skilled generation of decision-makers and greater potential for regional solidarity. The successful execution of practical projects as illustrated above has shown that starting from what children know about climate risks they face and recognizing what activities they are already involved in to reduce these risks helps empower young people to engage further. It is therefore imperative to ensure:

- Long-term support for access to quality education and inclusion of climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction in school curricula, in a way that empowers children as active citizens, and equips them with the relevant skills and knowledge to manage their environment and adapt to a changing climate.
- Governments and other policymakers should acknowledge children as stakeholders, providing formal mechanisms for children to contribute to decision-making on climate change.
- NAPAs, NAPs and other local, national, regional and strategic plans on climate change protect and involve children.
- All adaptation interventions build on lessons from community-based adaptation approaches that value local knowledge, and in which children are able to participate.
- That a proportion of adaptation financing is explicitly targeted to build child participation and capacity to adapt.
- That local government is equipped to play a key role in delivering child-sensitive adaptation in the long term.

The benefits of engaging children in the climate change discourse can provide a guiding vision and with proper planning the climate crisis in Africa can be turned into an opportunity.


(1) UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre (2008), Climate Change and Children: A human security challenge, p4, Florence, UNICEF IRC.
(2) Pan Africa Chemistry Network (PACN) (2010). Africa's Water Quality: A chemical science perspective, Cambridge: RSC Advancing the Chemical Sciences.