What does sustainability mean for children?

Everyone’s talking about sustainability. Last year, the Sustainable Development Goals, more commonly known as the Global Goals, were adopted by the world leaders and will be put into action from this year till 2030.

What is the definition of sustainability?

“Sustainability or sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition of sustainability comes from the Brundtland Report in 1987, which set the standard for sustainable development as we know it today. 

When we talk about ‘future generations’, we’re talking about the children of today and in the future. At Unicef, we know just how central children are to sustainable development, which is why sustainability is so important in everything that we do.

Here are three phrases that define sustainability and what it means for children around the world:

Enough for all for ever, especially the most vulnerable

All children have the right to have continuous access to basic services and resources, such as safe water, sanitation, adequate nutrition, good health, quality education, clean air and energy.

Yet millions of children around the world are denied this right every day. Conflicts, disasters, increasing population, urbanisation, over-consumerism as well as an increase in extreme weather events due to climate change are threatening access to these basic services. You can find out more about our work with children affected by climate change in our latest report, Children and the Changing Climate.

These factors are putting more and more children in danger, especially the most vulnerable who are caught in conflicts, disasters or in the vicious cycle of poverty.

In 2015, it was estimated that nearly 6 million children under the age of five – equivalent to 11 every minute  – would die because of lack of access to vital services. Sustainable solutions will help us ensure that these essential services reach every child, now and for ever.

Sustainability is part of all our work for children and affects all aspects of a child’s life: health, access to clean water and sanitation, nutrition, education, social inclusion and child protection. We work through an equity-based approach to make sure that all children have the right to these basic services and that no child is left behind.

A solar-powered water distribution point providing fresh water sustainably to children in the conflict-affected Blue Nile state of Sudan.

Prevention and preparedness are better than a cure

Disasters, such as floods, droughts, earthquakes, landslides and typhoons, are responsible for untimely disruption and deaths. Unfortunately, children make up more than half of those affected and when a disaster strikes, children are the hardest hit.

In 2014, 87% of all disasters were climate-related, occurring overwhelmingly in developing countries that are least equipped to deal with them (UNISDR, 2015). It is also predicted that every year for next decade, over 175 million children will be affected by natural disasters caused by climate change alone. Children are the most vulnerable and have the right to be protected.

Unicef recognises the importance of making sure that children have the knowledge and life-saving skills that can support their survival and development in the event of a disaster. We work to promote disaster risk reduction programmes for the most vulnerable. If children are empowered, they need not be victims but can be agents of change too.

Find out more about our work on disaster risk reduction (pdf)

Building resilience, building back better

Wars, conflicts and disasters, both natural and climate-related, undermine sustainable development and years of progress. These events turn children’s worlds upside down.

Unicef responds in emergency situations to protect children whenever an emergency hits.  We work towards reducing not just the immediate impacts of emergencies on children’s lives but also to make sure that children, communities and governments understand long-term risks and take action for sustainable development to help build back better for children and bring their lives back to normal.

“When we educate a girl displaced by conflict,” said Anthony Lake, Unicef’s Executive Director, “We’re not only giving her immediate protection. We’re helping her to shape her mind, build her own future, contribute to her family and society when she becomes an adult and perhaps even become a voice of peace in her community and country. That’s development.”

Students sit under a table during an earthquake drill at a primary school in Indonesia, which was struck by the deadly Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004.

Unicef Philippines Goodwill Ambassador Gary Valenciano listens to Lyn Lyn, 10, as she explains the hazards and vulnerabilities in her village through Participatory 3D Mapping.
Unicef Philippines/2015/Dimatatac

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Looking ahead with the Global Goals

The new Global Goals define sustainability as, “a plan of action for people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership.”

Accordingly, Unicef has charted out a 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and has also adopted the Environmental Sustainability Strategy for children, which ensures that Unicef will work for and with children to protect them from environmental risks and provide them with basic services through sustainable solutions.

Read our Environmental Sustainability Strategy 2016 – 2017 (pdf)

This is an exciting time and the momentum is building to make sure that more children around the world have clean air to breathe, a safe and continuous supply of water to drink, and life-saving skills and services to help them to have safer, secure futures.

Sustainable development means investing in those who must carry it in the future – sustainable development means investing in today’s children.

Meghna Das is Unicef UK’s sustainability programme specialist. You can follow Meghna on Twitter

Children at a cyclone-proof, eco-friendly school in Madagascar.