Latin America and the Caribbean: 1 in 6 children exposed to severe water scarcity

The climate changed world – with dwindling water supply and inadequate water services – is also changing children, altering their mental and physical health, new report warns

13 November 2023
A girl is on a boat with a UNICEF officer after her town was hit by a hurricane
UNICEF/UN0377672/Billy/AFP-Services
Juana Jennifer Tzoy, 9, and Manuel Moreno from UNICEF, travel in a boat to where her school used to be in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala.

NEW YORK, PANAMA 13 November 2023 1 in 6 children – or 27.5 million  – already live in areas exposed to high or very high water scarcity in Latin America and the Caribbean, with climate change threatening to make this worse, according to a new UNICEF report.

Further, the double burden of dwindling water availability and inadequate drinking water and sanitation services is compounding the challenge, putting children at even greater risk.

The Climate Changed Child – released ahead of the COP28 climate change summit - throws a spotlight on the threat to children as a result of water vulnerability, one of the ways in which the impacts of climate change are being felt. It provides an analysis of the impacts of three tiers of water security globally – water scarcity, water vulnerability, and water stress*.

The report, a supplement to the UNICEF’s Children’s Climate Risk (2021), also outlines the myriad of other ways in which children bear the brunt of the impacts of the climate crisis –including disease, air pollution, and extreme weather events such as floods and droughts. From the moment of conception until they grow into adulthood, the health and development of children’s brains, lungs, immune systems and other critical functions are affected by the environment they grow up in. For example, children are more likely to suffer from air pollution than adults. Generally, they breathe faster than adults and their brains, lungs and other organs are still developing.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, water sources are quickly drying up and, with it, the well-being of our children. Beyond going thirsty, less access to water also means poorer hygiene, health and living conditions for families in general and children in particular,” said UNICEF LAC Regional Director Garry Conille. “And in the next years, climate change will close the water tap even faster across the region. The current change in rainfall patterns, prolonged droughts, and lack of investment in climate-proofing infrastructure inevitably sets Latin American and Caribbean children on a path to increased vulnerability,” added Conille.

Far too many children – 4.8 million in the LAC region- are facing the double burden of high or very high water scarcity and low or very low drinking water service levels – known as extreme water vulnerability – leaving their lives, health, and well-being at risk. It is one of the key drivers of deaths among children under 5 from preventable diseases.

The report shows that water demand in Latin America and the Caribbean is expected to increased by 43 per cent, the second-highest region in the world.

In these circumstances, investment in safe drinking water and sanitation services are an essential first line of defense to protect children from the impacts of climate change. Climate change is also leading to increased water stress – the ratio of water demand to available renewable supplies – the report warns.

Despite their unique vulnerability, children have been either ignored or largely disregarded in discussions about climate change. For example, only 2.4 per cent of climate finance from key multilateral climate funds support projects that incorporate child-responsive activities.

At COP28, UNICEF is calling on world leaders and the international community to take critical steps with and for children to secure a livable planet, including:
 

  • Elevating children within the final COP28 Cover Decision and convene an expert dialogue on children and climate change.
     
  • Embedding children and intergeneration equity in the Global Stocktake (GST).
     
  • Including children and climate resilient essential services within the final decision on the Global Goal for Adaptation (GGA). 
     
  • Ensuring the Loss and Damage Fund and funding arrangements are child-responsive with child rights embedded in the fund's governance and decision-making process.

Beyond COP28, UNICEF is calling on parties to take action to protect the lives, health and well-being of children - including by adapting essential social services, empower every child to be a champion for the environment, and fulfil international sustainability and climate change agreements including rapidly reducing emissions.

“By 2050, water demand is expected to skyrocket by almost 50 percent in the region. Our children and young people will be hit in the face like never before. Without them being part of the solution, no progress can be made to increase resilience, climate change adaptation and sustainable development. The choice is simple: either Latin American and Caribbean governments get serious about including children and youth in all climate-related decisions now or large parts of the region are shooting themselves in the foot and will go thirsty tomorrow,” stressed Conille.

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Notes to Editors:
 

* Water stress: The ratio of total water demand to available renewable surface and groundwater supplies. Water demand include domestic, industrial, irrigation, and livestock uses. Higher values indicate more competition among users.

Water scarcity: UNICEF’s Children’s Climate Risk Index defines water scarcity based on composite measure of baseline water stress, seasonal variability, interannual variability, ground water table decline and drought risk. Higher values indicate higher exposure to water scarcity risks.

Media contacts

Sendai Zea
Communication Specialist (Emergencies)
UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean
Tel: +507 6821 0843

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