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14 November 2023

1 in 3 children – or 739 million worldwide – already live in areas exposed to high or very high water scarcity, with climate change threatening to make this worse, according to a new UNICEF report.

The Climate Changed Child – released ahead of the COP28 climate change summit – shines a light on the threat to children as a result of water vulnerability, one of the ways in which the impacts of climate change are being felt. It provides an analysis of the impacts of three tiers of water security globally – water scarcity, water vulnerability, and water stress.

The report, a supplement to the UNICEF’s Children’s Climate Risk (2021), also details other ways in which children bear the brunt of the impacts of the climate crisis including disease, air pollution, and extreme weather events such as floods and droughts.

“This latest UNICEF report reaffirms that the climate crisis is changing childhood,” said Nishadh Rego, Climate Advisor at UNICEF Australia.

“In recent years, the intensification of climate change is playing out in different ways across Australia from severe drought in some parts of the country combined with intense rains, floods and other extreme weather events elsewhere. It’s changing rainfall variability and intensity, all of which impacts water scarcity. 

"Children around the world are uniquely and disproportionately vulnerable to extreme weather, pollution, and deadly disease and yet their needs, perspectives, and priorities are almost totally absent from climate policies, action, and investment at all levels. We see COP28 as a real opportunity to change this – globally, all governments must ensure that national climate plans and policies protect, prepare, and prioritise children and young people in the climate crisis."

Nishadh Rego
Climate Advisor at UNICEF Australia

"UNICEF Australia is advocating for child-centred climate action which includes ensuring the voices of children and young people are central to decision-making. We’ll be calling for increased investment to protect children and for the Australian Government to further strengthen ambitions to tackle climate change.”

The NSW Youth Drought Summit, which UNICEF Australia hosted in 2019, highlighted the significant impacts of drought on children’s mental health, education, livelihoods, and sense of hope for the future. We know that these issues are only going to worsen as climate change catalyses more frequent, and intense droughts in Australia.

The Climate Changed Child report brings clear evidence on the need for action and a child-sensitive response. From the moment of conception until they grow into adulthood, the health and development of children’s brains, lungs, immune systems and other critical functions are affected by the environment they grow up in. For example, children are more likely to suffer from air pollution than adults. Generally, they breathe faster than adults and their brains, lungs and other organs are still developing.

"The consequences of climate change are devastating for children. Their bodies and minds are uniquely vulnerable to polluted air, poor nutrition and extreme heat. Not only is their world changing – with water sources drying up and terrifying weather events becoming stronger and more frequent – so too is their well-being as climate change affects their mental and physical health. Children are demanding change, but their needs are far too often relegated to the sidelines."

Catherine Russell
UNICEF Executive Director

According to the report findings, the greatest share of children are exposed in the Middle East and North Africa and South Asia regions – meaning they live in places with limited water resources and high levels of seasonal and interannual variability, ground water table decline or drought risk.

Far too many children – 436 million - are facing the double burden of high or very high water scarcity and low or very low drinking water service levels – known as extreme water vulnerability – leaving their lives, health, and well-being at risk. It is one of the key drivers of deaths among children under 5 from preventable diseases.

The report shows that those most affected live in low- and middle-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Central and Southern Asia, and Eastern and South-Eastern Asia. In 2022, 436 million children were living in areas facing extreme water vulnerability. Some of the most impacted countries include Niger, Jordan, Burkina Faso, Yemen, Chad, and Namibia, where 8 out of 10 children are exposed.

In these circumstances, investment in safe drinking water and sanitation services are an essential first line of defense to protect children from the impacts of climate change. Climate change is also leading to increased water stress – the ratio of water demand to available renewable supplies – the report warns. By 2050, 35 million more children are projected to be exposed to high or very high levels of water stress, with the Middle East and North Africa, and South Asia currently facing the biggest shifts.

Despite their unique vulnerability, children have been either ignored or largely disregarded in discussions about climate change. For example, only 2.4 per cent of climate finance from key multilateral climate funds support projects that incorporate child-responsive activities.

At COP28, UNICEF is calling on world leaders and the international community to take critical steps with and for children to secure a liveable planet, including:

  • Elevating children within the final COP28 Cover Decision and convene an expert dialogue on children and climate change.
  • Embedding children and intergeneration equity in the Global Stocktake (GST).
  • Including children and climate resilient essential services within the final decision on the Global Goal for Adaptation (GGA). 
  • Ensuring the Loss and Damage Fund and funding arrangements are child-responsive with child rights embedded in the fund's governance and decision-making process.

Beyond COP28, UNICEF is calling on parties to take action to protect the lives, health and well-being of children - including by adapting essential social services, empower every child to be a champion for the environment, and fulfil international sustainability and climate change agreements including rapidly reducing emissions.

“Children and young people have consistently made urgent calls for their voices to be heard on the climate crisis, but they have almost no formal role in climate policy and decision-making. They are rarely considered in existing climate adaptation, mitigation or finance plans and actions,” Russell said. “It is our collective responsibility to put every child at the centre of urgent global climate action.”