“Often, leeches get stuck on our feet and suck blood. Even going to school has become risky. When I move to the temporary house, I am unable to attend school regularly,” said an adolescent girl at Karuda village in Uttarakhand.
While leeches have always been common in villages of Uttarkashi district, they have now started appearing on the lower slopes, including houses. People feel that the rise in temperature is a major reason for this issue, which poses health risks for people, especially children.
“We get only Rs 140 for a day’s work, which is insufficient. Cultivators do not give work when there is low rainfall and, in such seasons, it gets difficult to run the household. Now, in this kind of situation, how can we educate our children,” said a parent at Siptan village in Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh.
The impact of climate crisis on people across the world is highly disproportionate but no other group is as vulnerable as children in low income families of developing countries.
Children are not emotionally and physically capable of understanding the dangers during extreme weather events and are dependent on adults for their survival. They are more susceptible to water and vector-borne diseases, malnutrition and they are forced into labor due to economic challenges induced by climate crisis.
A report Protect a Generation: Climate Security for India’s Children by Save the Children, India and PwC India Foundation has brought out this issue through a survey of six districts with unique ecosystem types.
Khargone and Morena of Madhya Pradesh are located in a desert plateau zone which faces regular droughts, floods and heat waves. Haridwar and Uttarkashi lie in Uttarkhand Himalayas and experience floods, landslides and droughts. Purulia of West-Bengal is an arid region while coastal South 24 Parganas regularly deals with cyclones and floods.
During the survey, around 70% of the respondents across all states said that temperature had increased over the past five years and winter had reduced to only one month.
Three out of four households in all districts except Uttarkashi said that rainfall had decreased in the past five years. They also complained about delayed monsoon and erratic rainfall. Droughts were commonly experienced in Khargone, Morena and Purulia districts but over the last few years their intensity has increased.
Similarly, the frequency of cyclones in South 24 Parganas has increased; households complained of expanding coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion which led to crop loss and declining quality of drinking water.
More than 50% of the respondents said extreme weather events like floods, cyclones and erosions had become more hazardous and frequent in the last 10 years. Households with large number of dependents usually have inadequate resources, and hence limited ability to recover from hazards.
Around 43% of the households in the study regions were dependent on agriculture and hence adversely affected by changes in temperature, rainfall patterns and extreme weather events that led to fall in productivity.
At least 60% of the families in these six districts said that climate crisis had impacted their economic situation. Purulia, which is also well known for lac cultivation, has been suffering hardships for the last few decades due to decrease in production.
In Morena, increased frequency of hailstorms is affecting crops while villages in Haridwar located close to the riverbanks experience seasonal erosion, thereby reducing soil quality. Livestock are also affected due to climate related events like lightning in Uttarkashi.
“Earlier we used to get various types and varieties of small fish, vegetables, etc. which we ate regularly. Nowadays they are not grown and are not available to us,” said a child development project officer of Jhalda II in Purulia district.
Impact on children
Climate crisis induced decline in agricultural productivity has led to less demand for agricultural laborers who struggle to find work. This leads to malnutrition and unhygienic conditions among children of these families making them susceptible to diseases.
In the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe pockets of Khargone and Purulia, children get involved in economic activities instead of going to school. Their nutrition intake, access to and affordability of healthcare facilities are affected, especially among the landless households who depend on irregular casual labor work and usually live on debt.
Depending on the region, up to 58% of the respondents said that their children faced health issues such as dehydration, skin diseases and allergies due to rising temperatures.
In Khargone district, many poor families send their children to even distant Maharashtra and Gujarat to work. “We do want to send our children to school; who doesn’t? But filling up the stomach is a more urgent need than education, that’s why we are forced to make our children work,” said a parent at Narayanpura village of Khargone district.
As per the local elders, indigenously grown nutritious food items are no longer produced due to commercialization of farming which has thereby lowered their immunity levels. Malnutrition among children and anemia among adolescents and women were observed commonly in households where there was no primary caregiver as both parents were working.
Children’s education and performance are affected by extreme weather events such as floods and droughts as they have to miss school when they are unable to travel to school or when they fall ill. In extreme cases, children are forced to drop out to support the household. In several districts, more than 50% of respondents said that children could not play outside due to heat.
Up to 14% of the respondents knew at least one family member that migrated because of a climate-related disaster. Increasing temperature and water scarcity due to extreme weather events are causing vector and water-borne diseases among children while displacement impacts their mental wellbeing.
Climate change and water
Weak infrastructure like kutcha houses, insanitation, lack of electricity or proper road networks lower the adaptive capacity towards any climate adversity. Up to 75% of the households saw their houses damaged by climate crisis-related events. Lack of accessibility due to damaged or non-existent roads and difficult terrain hamper education of the child.
In the South 24 Parganas and Uttarkashi districts, only 19% and 11% of the respondents respectively reported access to a school within 1 km. “We drink water from the hand pump in our school. It is very salty, but we have no option but to drink this water at the cost of our health,” said an adolescent boy at Tuslai, in Morena district of Madhya Pradesh.
Up to 90% respondents in six surveyed districts said climate crisis had negatively impacted availability of drinking water. Ground and surface water sources get depleted due to drought, sea level rise cause saltwater intrusion into water bodies and groundwater while cyclones and floods affect clean water availability.
In Purulia, water crisis has led to poor utilization of sanitation facilities even in households having toilets. Children are often impacted by vector and water-borne diseases due to increase in temperature and water scarcity.
Children-centric climate plan
Since climate crisis is a persistent phenomenon which is bound to intensify, we need to build climate crisis adaptation strategies into our plans, programs and policies. Efforts should be made to resolve the bottlenecks and focus on child-centric disaster preparedness, response and recovery by training child frontline workers to ensure climate resilience in children.
We must ensure safety and disaster-preparedness of children’s institutions like schools, foster care centers, kindergartens, facilities for care of disadvantaged children, orphanages and institutions under the juvenile justice system as well.
Government programs like MGNREGA which promote waged employment by creating durable assets for sustainable natural resources management and disaster mitigation, the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) which focuses on welfare of farmers or even the few children specific initiatives like mid-day meal or Integrated Child Management System should converge and collaborate to optimize efforts and get maximum benefits.
We must ensure access to education, gender-sensitive social protection through micro-financing, insurance facilities, self-help groups and community-based programs so that the effect of climate crisis on livelihood can be cushioned to some extent through last-mile service delivery. Climate smart agriculture and water safety or security plans need to be decentralized and made at the community level.
Satyaki Baidya is a Delhi-based journalist. Views are personal. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
This was first published in GoI Monitor.