Children and the effects of climate change in Pakistan

[This essay was written for the UNICEF Adolescent voices and was part of The State of the World’s Children 2011 Report]

Adolescents in Pakistan – where we account for 40.5 million out of a population of over 176 million people – are keenly aware that we are inheriting a planet suffering from climate change. Like other developing countries that will be hit hardest by the effects of global warming, Pakistan has contributed minimally to global emissions but still has to deal with the dreadful impacts of storm surges, natural disasters and heavy rains. Rising sea levels and dramatic changes in weather patterns have already caused flooding and drought, limiting food harvests and access to fresh water and affecting industrial production. We need to take all remedial measures to avoid becoming ‘environmental refugees’.

Climate change, in Pakistan and worldwide, is especially hard on children, who are more vulnerable than adults to disease, malnutrition and exploitation. Rising temperatures and extreme climate events contribute to the spread of diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea and pneumonia. These are some of the main causes of death for Pakistani children under 5 years old. With drought, agriculture – 24 per cent of our gross domestic product – suffers as the crop yield is reduced and supplies are depleted.

Recent events have provided dramatic evidence of the catastrophic impact on Pakistan of changing weather patterns. Unprecedented heavy rains gave way in July 2010 to devastating floods. The initial death toll was approximately 1,600 people, but many more are unaccounted for. An estimated 20 million men, women and children have been affected by the floods, and huge numbers are stranded, waiting for help. Most escaped from their homes with nothing but what they were wearing. Compounding the health risks resulting from the flooding and the lack of food, water and shelter, the country is beleaguered by the economic catastrophe resulting from the destruction of its agricultural backbone. Millions of hectares of crops have been soaked or washed away, and livestock have been destroyed.

This drowning nation now faces a further disaster: The floods are threatening to decimate Pakistan’s youth. One of the biggest threats is the outbreak of water-borne diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea. As in most natural catastrophes, children are also at a high risk of separation from their families and exposure to the dangers of child labour, abuse and exploitation. More than 5,500 schools have been ruined or wiped out. We cannot stand by and watch this generation disappear. As global citizens, we must help them survive this shattering event and emerge as role models of courage, endurance and determination.

It is time to take action – not only to deal with this immediate tragedy, but also to address the issue of global warming. As adolescents, we face a common opponent: greenhouse gases. In order to prevail, we must come together to help others, employ alternative energy sources and create laws to protect our planet and its people.

Syed Aown Shahzad is a youth activist and a native of Lahore, Pakistan. He was part of the youth delegations at the 2009 Summit on Climate Change and the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and he continues to spread awareness about global issues such as climate change and children’s rights in Pakistan and beyond.

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