Climate Risks on Cambodian Children

A UNICEF report has found various risks that impact children in East Asia and the Pacific, including impacts affecting Cambodian children, while calling for measures to safeguard their rights and future
Children walk under the heat in Phnom Penh, June 5, 2023. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Children walk under the heat in Phnom Penh, June 5, 2023. Kiripost/Siv Channa

Nearly 2.9 million children in Cambodia are highly exposed to riverine flooding and 880,000 to cyclones, while millions are badly affected by various types of pollution, including six million to air pollution, a report on climate and environmental shocks, stress and hazards on children in East Asia and the Pacific by UNICEF revealed.

The report, titled ‘Over the tipping point’, also found that 110,000 children in Cambodia are impacted by water scarcity, while coastal flooding and heat waves affect 290,000 and 220,000 children, respectively.

According to UNICEF, the report unveils the “intensifying frequency and compounding effects of climate-related hazards intertwined with non-climate shocks such as the Covid-19 pandemic and socio-economic challenges”.

It noted that multiple, overlapping climate and environmental hazards, for instance coastal flooding, water scarcity, heatwaves, air pollution, riverine flooding and tropical cyclones, and vector-borne diseases plague the region.

In Cambodia, 99.9 percent of children face one or more types of shock, hazard or stress with 99.8 percent facing two or more types of shock, while three or more types affect 93.6 percent of children.

However, 49.1 percent of children are exposed to four or more types of shock, as 2.8 percent face five or more types of shock.

Climate shocks are increasing in frequency, and interacting with non-climate shocks like the Covid-19 pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, among others, creating multiplier effects and cascading impacts in the region, leading to a ‘polycrisis’ – a situation with multiple near-simultaneous shocks with strong interdependencies.

Other human-driven trends amplify these effects, leading to more shocks, thus creating knock-on effects on several interconnected systems and sectors.

“All of this erodes the capacity of people to respond to the combinations of all those shocks,” the report noted.

Child rights crisis

It said children and families who are already disadvantaged by poverty, and have the fewest resources for coping with climate change impacts, could be subjected to some of the most immediate dangers as they have less means to protect themselves.

Climate-related disasters can also interrupt their education by damaging schools and relevant infrastructures.

These calamities are likely to create conditions for economic stress in families, leading to children - especially young girls - to stay home to take care of their families.

“Unfortunately, this is only the beginning. The latest synthesis report of the IPCC sixth assessment report (AR6) is a stark eye-opener of the narrow window to prevent the worst from occurring,” UNICEF said.

“The report indicates with high confidence that children of today will experience extreme weather events spiralling out of control in their future, impacting their quality of life, as well as their health, well-being and security.”

Children who were aged 10 or younger in the year 2020 are projected to experience a nearly four-fold increase in extreme events under 1.5C of global warming by 2100, and a fivefold increase under 3C warming.

Commenting that the changes would cause extensive direct and indirect harm to children globally, UNICEF said climate change is “underpinning a child rights crisis”.

Heatwaves, dengue, diarrhoea

Delving into the impacts, the report said rising temperatures result in higher incidences of vector-borne and water-borne diseases, while air pollution leads to dangerous respiratory and health conditions that hit children the hardest.

The latter is largely a result of the early stage of their physiological and cognitive development, which makes them less-equipped to deal with climate-related shocks and stresses.

Also, increased frequency and intensity of heatwaves are leading to more cases of heat stroke and dehydration among children, particularly in low-income countries.

Young children and those under the age of five are more vulnerable than adults to heatwaves, since they are less able to regulate their body temperature and must rely on others to control the temperature of the surrounding environment.

Vector-borne diseases such as dengue, Zika and Lyme disease are likely to spread, raising risks that are largely driven by suitable local temperatures and high levels of precipitation.

Globally, dengue cases increased to more than 3.3 million in 2016 from 2.2 million in 2010, with the region observing a sharp increase, particularly in Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.

Some of the other impacts on children are further exacerbated by poverty and fewer resources to cope with it.

For example, flood and drought zones often overlap with areas of high poverty and low access to essential services, such as water and sanitation.

“Following the floods in 2011, Cambodian children from households with poor sanitation and untreated drinking water, as well as having a mother who lacked education, experienced higher rates of diarrhoea than households with treated water, soap and more highly educated mothers.

Additionally, as extreme weather causes decline in crop yields, poorer household livelihoods are affected, which has repercussions on the food supply, resulting in malnutrition and declining health.

Four areas

Given that children are already facing the impacts of climate change, adaptation and resilience measures are needed now to reduce the full force of impacts, UNICEF urged, recommending four areas for improvement.

It asked that children have continued access to key services, where investment must be made in climate-smart and disaster-resilient education, health, and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services.

There should be child protection and social protection systems in place that are climate-responsive.

UNICEF also called for an understanding of what to expect and how to adjust as necessary, establishing and utilising strong early warning, risk management and disaster preparedness systems.

And, across those three criteria, UNICEF said children’s rights should be at the heart of the response, and that their voices and perspectives be heard and acted upon by decision makers.

The approaches need to entail forward-thinking, interrelated large-scale systemic reforms and policy initiatives that utilise the power of innovation and cooperation.

But together, it said, they can provide a strong basis for improving children’s resilience to the multiple, overlapping shocks associated with climate change and environmental degradation, as well as natural hazards.

“We need to be guided by children and young people. This is their planet to inherit. They have done least to create the problem – and they will bear 100 percent of the future impacts,” it said.

“They have the right to be heard, and we have a duty to listen and respond to their calls, including supporting meaningful involvement in climate action. The urgency is requiring them to not wait for adults, but to act themselves, to champion solutions in mitigation, as well as adaptation with creativity and ingenuity.”

That process needs to be supported, including the skills and resources to scale the work up, it added.

Strategic efforts

Meanwhile, efforts are being taken by the government to combat climate change and create awareness of its effects.

In Cambodia’s Climate Change Strategic Plan 2019 to 2023, programmes on how to respond to climate risks have been developed targeting vulnerable groups including women,children and youths.

It noted that among its strengths on strategic responses is its policies on health and environment. In the five year plan, eight strategic objectives were highlighted which includes the reduction of vulnerability of sectors, gender and health to climate change.

Both the Health Ministry and Environment Ministry did not respond to questions.