Three reasons why El Nino is bad news for children

3 reasons why El Niño
is bad news for children

Home > Three reasons why El Niño is bad news for children

Right now, almost a million children need treatment for severe acute malnutrition in Eastern and Southern Africa. Two years of erratic rain and drought have combined with one of the most powerful El Niño events in 50 years to wreak havoc on the lives of the most vulnerable children.

El Niño, which is caused by Pacific Ocean warming, occurs every two to seven years. Scientists believe they have been around for millennia, but that the droughts and floods they trigger may be becoming more intense as a result of climate change. Forecasters say this year’s event could become even more powerful than the 1997-98 El Niño – the strongest on record.

Children are disproportionately affected by natural hazards of the type triggered by El Niño. Beside the immediate threats, which include death, injury or the loss of parents; extreme weather can also affect children’s physical and mental health, and their education and safety.

How does El Niño affect children?

1. It damages children’s health

Changes in temperature, humidity and rainfall can promote climate-sensitive diseases like malaria, dengue fever, diarrhoea and cholera; which are all major killers of children. Researchers have also found that a severe El Niño can lead ultimately to low height for age (known as stunting) caused by under-nutrition, as well as greater risk of illness, delayed mental development or premature death, and can be passed on to the next generation.

In addition, infants and small children are more likely than adults to die or suffer heat stroke. This is because they find it difficult to regulate their body heat, cannot yet express themselves clearly when they become overheated and thirsty, and can easily get diarrhoea from drinking contaminated water, which further aggravates dehydration.

Mothers bring their babies and young children to be screened for malnutrition. Photo: Unicef Ethiopia/2016/Ayene

Mothers bring their babies and young children to be screened for malnutrition.
Unicef Ethiopia/2016/Ayene

2. It denies children an education

Extreme weather can lead to children missing out on their education. Floods, for example, can severely damage or destroy schools, as well as the roads and bridges children use to reach school and return home.

Equally, the pressure put on family incomes by drought often causes children to drop out or be taken out of school, so they can work, or beg; or where families see early marriage as the best option.

Girls carrying water from 5kms away during school time. Photo: Unicef/Zimbabwe/2016/NYAMANHINDI

Girls carrying water from 5km away during school time.
Unicef/Zimbabwe/2016/Nyamanhindi

3. It exposes children to dangers

In extreme weather events fuelled by El Niño, such as floods and typhoons, children may lose their parents, becoming more vulnerable not only to the elements but potentially also to abuse and exploitation. During droughts, many children – often girls – have to walk further to fetch water and collect firewood, exposing them to the risk of violence and abuse.

You can read more about El Niño’s impact on children in the recent Unicef publication, A wake-up call- El Niño’s impact on children (pdf).

What is Unicef doing?

Unicef is active in the countries affected and threatened by El Niño, including Angola, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Malawi, Somalia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. Our colleagues are helping provide clean water, life-saving food, health supplies, education, support and protection to the most vulnerable children.

In addition, we’re working with governments and partners to make sure that:

  • children receive the emergency therapeutic food and milk they need to survive
  • basic health supplies, including vaccines, reach children even in the most remote areas
  • children have safe water to drink, prepare food and wash
  • the most vulnerable households receive food or cash transfers to prevent children from engaging in risky activities such as child labour
  • children can continue with their schooling in drought or flood affected areas.

We respond in a cost-effective way, preparing for heightened risk of floods and prolonged droughts and working to break the cycle of this chronic crisis.

How can you help?

Help Unicef reach children and families with clean water and sanitation facilities, life-saving food and treatment for malnutrition, psychosocial and protection support, emergency education services and importantly information about future risk reduction and disaster preparedness.

So that we can continue to be there for as many children as possible, we have a Children’s Emergency Fund. When disaster strikes, Unicef is ready to respond rapidly to deliver life-saving food, medicine and water, education and protection services so children in danger get the help they need, and can recover fast and resilient. We rely on money from our Children’s Emergency Fund to do this. And we rely on donations to keep the fund alive and enable us to respond to emergencies, whenever they come, and whatever their size.

Children and their families travel up to 10 hours to get water that is hot and salty, and children drink from the same trough as their animals. Photo: Unicef Ethiopia/2016/Ayene

Children and their families travel up to 10 hours to get water that is hot and salty, and children drink from the same trough as their animals.
Unicef Ethiopia/2016/Ayene

Help keep children safe when an emergency hits

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