1 In 3 Children Now Facing Severe Water Scarcity Risk
A new report from Unicef entitled The Climate Changed Child – published ahead of the COP28 climate change summit, taking place between November 30th and December 12th – has revealed that one in three children (or 739 million globally) now live in regions exposed to high or very high water scarcity.
The threat of climate change is also looming large, with the potential to make the situation around the world far worse, while children are also being put increasingly at risk because of decreasing water availability and inadequate drinking water and sanitation services.
The greatest proportion of children facing water stress and scarcity risks are in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia regions, places that have limited water resources, drought risk, groundwater table decline and high levels of seasonal and interannual variability.
Furthermore, some 436 million children are now facing the double burden of water scarcity and low drinking water service levels, which is known as extreme water vulnerability. This compounded situation is putting their lives at risk, as one of the main drivers of deaths among those under the age of five from preventable diseases.
The most affected children live in low and middle-income countries in Central and Southern Asia, Eastern and South-Eastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Some of the countries bearing the brunt include Niger, Yemen, Chad, Jordan, Namibia and Burkina Faso, where eight out of ten children are exposed to these risks.
The report went on to warn that climate change is leading to increased water stress and by 2050, some 35 million more children are predicted to be facing high or very high levels of water stress. But one of the best ways to go about protecting children from climate-related impacts is to invest in safe drinking water and sanitation services.
At this year’s climate change conference in the UAE, Unicef will be calling on world leaders and the international community to convene an expert dialogue on children and climate change, embed children and intergenerational equity in the Global Stocktake and ensure that children and climate resilient essential services are included in the final decision on the Global Goal for Adaptation.
Commenting on the findings, Unicef executive director Catherine Russell said: “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 wellbeing as climate change affects their mental and physical health. Children are demanding change, but their needs are far too often relegated to the sidelines.”
Improving access to clean drinking water
The right to safe drinking water and sanitation is as essential to the survival of children as food and medical care, as well as protection from attack. When children don’t have access to clean water supplies, their health, nutrition, education and all other aspects of their lives are affected, with girls, women and disabled people particularly affected.
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals include delivering safe and affordable drinking water for everyone around the world by 2030, but global investment levels are currently falling far below what is necessary in order to achieve this.
Unicef has been finding innovative solutions to provide safe water for children no matter where in the world they live, ensuring that the measures implemented are able to withstand climate shocks while limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
In Madagascar, for example, just 42 per cent of the population have access to clean water. More remote communities often have to walk between five and 20km to find water and it’s very common for people in these regions to drink contaminated surface water from lakes, ponds and rivers.
Since 2015, Unicef has been tackling the issue of water scarcity in Madagascar by drilling over 685 boreholes around the country. Devices have been installed in the boreholes to measure the level and quality of groundwater, with data sent to a public information system that posts regular online bulletins about the levels, salinity and temperature of the water.
This monitoring system means that overconsumption can be prevented during drier months, while water levels can be watched closely throughout the year to prevent wells from drying up by limiting groundwater extraction and aquifer recharge through dam construction.
In Venezuela, meanwhile, the indigenous Warao community had been taking untreated water straight from the Orinoco River, leading to frequent cases of waterborne diseases like dysentery and diarrhoea, common causes of death among children.
In March this year, Unicef installed a solar-powered water treatment plant in the local community, directly benefiting 10,000 people living in San Francisco de Guayo and the surrounding areas.
Local health care provisions have also been improved, with safer deliveries, improved breastfeeding practices and better care for children in need of hospital attention.
Another strategy employed by the organisation is to test household and public water sources for faecal contamination. Test kits look at various aspects of water to ensure it’s safe to drink, including testing for bacteria like E. coli, which is an indicator of the likes of typhoid, cholera and diarrhoea.
These kits have been designed for use specifically in places where there are no laboratories, with results produced in 18 to 24 hours. A new type of test is also being piloted that can return results in eight to ten hours, slashing the time required to get results of bacteria presence in water in more remote locations.
The hope is that the evolution of diagnostic tests that arose because of the pandemic will prove helpful in developing rapid water test kits that can provide results in less than two hours.