Under the weather

How climate change is affecting our health

UNICEF
Toddler cuddling up to mother
Pixabay
04 February 2022

Feeling under the weather? It might be climate change and it is impacting the health of our children more than we realise. Here, in the second of a three-part series, we take a look at the impact of climate change on the health and well-being of children in Malaysia. 

Issmail Nnafie, Programme Specialist for Innovation & Sustainability, UNICEF Malaysia

Pulau Gaya, an island off Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, is home to many families. The villagers here earn a living as fishermen or by making salted fish to be sold at the market. Like anywhere else, children can be seen running around at all hours. Island life may sound idyllic, but in reality, it’s far from it – especially when the weather turns bad.  

The communities of Pulau Gaya face issues arising from the lack of documentation, lack of clean water supply, income instability and lack of access to services such as health and educational facilities. Living on an island also makes them especially susceptible to the vagaries of weather, something that climate change has escalated. 

“Once we experienced our house being blown away by strong wind. Strong winds also blew off the roofs of the school and surau,” says a resident on the island.  

“The villagers say that these events are becoming more frequent,” says Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Associate Professor Dr Yanti Rosli, a co-researcher on the team that carried out the study ‘Impact of Climate Change on Children: A Malaysian Perspective’.  

“Our analysis of data shows that rainy seasons are lasting longer, and weather events are getting more extreme. Projections show that this will continue to worsen as climate change keeps accelerating. The most crucial point is that it is the children who will suffer most,” she adds.  

Flooded with danger 

In Malaysia, the effects of climate change and environmental degradation on the health and well-being of children can be seen in several ways. 

The high rainfall has increased the risk of floods. In addition to facing higher risk of injury and death, children are also more vulnerable to falling ill from water-borne diseases that are often spread by floods. “When we looked at the data we saw that recorded cases of leptospirosis and typhoid fever increased after major flood events,” says Dr Yanti.  

On top of this, she points out, floods also can mobilise environmental pollutants that are in the soil at agricultural sites and other areas. “These pollutants like pesticides then end up contaminating rivers and other water bodies. In fact our studies show that floods have been linked to increased water pollution and pesticides in food.” 

An itching menace 

Climate change has also affected climate-sensitive vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue. 

While malaria has a very low incidence rate in the country, dengue is still a common disease. As cited in the report, in 2013, 450,000 children under four and another 500,000 children 15 years and below contracted dengue. In 2013 and 2014, children made up one in ten cases of fatal dengue in Malaysia. 

A resident of the PPR (Projek Perumahan Rakyat or People’s Housing Project) Sungai Bonus in Kuala Lumpur told researchers that there were a lot of dengue cases in the area.  

But how is dengue connected to climate change? “It’s because dengue-transmitting mosquitoes are very sensitive to environmental conditions,” explains Dr Yanti. 

“Warmer conditions enable mosquitoes to reach maturity more rapidly. Rainfall creates breeding sites. Humidity influences the evaporation rates for these sites. These are all onditions that climate change has exacerbated,” Dr Yanti adds. 

Children wearing masks in a haze-filled balcony
Coconuts KL

When pollution is in the air 

Environmental degradation has also led to worsening air quality. Malaysians have become all too familiar with haze and children are more at risk because their lungs, brains, physical defences and immune systems are not fully developed. Children also breathe more rapidly than adults, taking in a relatively higher proportion of pollutants.  

In Pos Kuala Mu, a village in Perak, a participant surveyed by the research team said: “When I first came here, all the area was still green…the air was fresh. But maybe because a lot of trees have been cut down, the air is not the same as before.” 

“We need to realise the gravity of the consequences on our children,” says Dr Yanti.  

The data shows that short-term exposure to ambient air pollution is associated with increases in childhood respiratory morbidity and mortality in Asia’s low-to-middle-income countries, including Malaysia. It also increases the risk of hospitalisation for respiratory diseases in children, such as asthma and bronchitis, with children aged five to nine years being more vulnerable to ambient air pollution.  

Pollutants in the air can also severely impact a child’s developing brain, with the risk of neuro-inflammation, neurodegenerative diseases, and loss of or damage to white matter.  

A matter of the mind 

It is not just the risk of physical harm that threatens children. “Children are also at risk psychologically,” says Dr Yanti. According to the report, approximately 10 per cent of children exposed to traumatic events will develop post-traumatic stress disorders. Floods, typhoons, landslides are all traumatic events that many children, especially those in marginalised communities, experience.  

Many will grow up in fear of having to endure a similar ordeal in the future. “More so if they lose parents or siblings, or are suddenly removed from their homes,” notes Dr Yanti.  

“When we spoke to children who lived in PPR Sungai Bonus, they also told us they felt choked and stressed when they had to stay indoors for long periods of time during extreme weather events. Such conditions can take a toll on children’s mental health,” says Dr Yanti, adding that many of these children live with extended family members in a cramped space.  

Let’s do better for our children 

These findings show us that there are gaps, and with it opportunities, for us to do better for our children.  

In Malaysia, the Ministry of Health has established health guidelines and action plans to deal with common events such as floods, haze, and climate-sensitive diseases. While the macro-level strategic plans do not explicitly focus on children, within most of the management guidelines, children’s needs are tackled under the umbrella of vulnerable communities. This includes highlighting the need to address children’s mental health issues during disasters.  

Government agencies such as the National Disaster Management Agency (NADMA) have also taken steps to include children’s specific issues in certain programmes such as its Community Based Disaster Risk Management Programme. Embedded in the programme is a public education module that raises awareness on the roles communities play in a disaster. It looks at how we need to prioritise vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly, women and people with disabilities before, during, and after a disaster. The programme is also brought to schools as part of an initiative to help children and youth gain resilience and to be better prepared to deal with disasters. 

These are steps in the right direction but children still need to be given special and explicit attention when it comes to formulating health policies, laws and plans around climate change, environmental degradation and natural disasters.  

To move forward, we need more studies and research on the best ways to develop child-centric guidelines on health components and indicators related to climate and the environment. We should find ways to incorporate appropriate risk assessment tools into scheduled children’s health screenings and monitoring programmes that will enable us to identify children-at-risk. 

We should also look at how a child’s right to a healthy environment can be systematically and widely interpreted by the Constitution in terms of climate and environmental issues and thereafter integrated into national law and policy. This will help to increase enforcement in the regulation of health hazards – for example, in ensuring that parties that perpetrate environmental crimes, especially crimes affecting children and other vulnerable groups, can be brought to justice more effectively.  

There is also the need to strengthen existing social protection systems to better protect children and enhance response to natural disasters and climate change.  

“Together with other actions and initiatives to mitigate disasters such as floods, pollution and climate-sensitive diseases our children can hope to grow up stronger and healthier physically, mentally and emotionally,” says Dr Yanti.  

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‘Impact of Climate Change on Children: A Malaysian Perspective’ was a study conducted by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), in collaboration with UNICEF and Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS). This is the first study that addresses children as an especially vulnerable group vis-a-vis the impact of climate change and environmental degradation in the country. The report was launched on 29 October 2021 in the lead-up to COP26. The full report is available on the UNICEF Malaysia website at https://unicef.org/malaysia/reports/impact-climate-change-children.