Climate change and disaster risk reduction
Because every child deserves a safe place to grow up
Context and challenges
The Indian Ocean is the heartbeat of the Maldives. The country is made up of 99 percent water and 1 percent land, a geographic composition that makes any change in the ocean reverberate through the islands. Because of this, the country is extremely vulnerable to natural hazards, including tsunamis, floods, intense winds and rising sea levels. Recognizing that the Maldives is one of the lowest-lying countries on earth—and as such, one of the most vulnerable to climate change—for the past three decades, the environment has been at the forefront of Maldivian political discussion. Since first convening leaders from other island states in 1989, environmental degradation and climate change have remained a priority for every administration.
On average, the Maldives rises just 1.5 meters above sea level, making any change in climate potentially deadly to its inhabitants.
In 2004, a massive tsunami swallowed 14 islands, killing over 100 people and displacing many more. The disaster touched one-third of the country’s population and destroyed one-fourth of the islands’ essential infrastructure. Before and after the tsunami, seasonal flooding and tropical storms have damaged homes, schools and communities. Flooding in the south and strong winds and rain associated with cyclonic activity in the north often stop children from attending school. Such weather events also affect health services and at times, damage homes, stores and schools. Natural hazards—and a general increase in flooding, heat and storms—also increase the incidence of water-borne diseases. When water is contaminated and mosquitoes are given a chance to spawn, children risk contracting illnesses like Dengue Fever and diarrhea.
Such circumstances are made worse by the Maldives’ limited capacity to prepare, monitor and respond to natural and man-made emergencies on the islands. Without the proper systems in place, children and families are left to deal with disasters on their own, often with little warning and a lack of resources.
Climate change is also affecting children’s daily lives. Increasing temperatures associated with global warming have affected children's schooling and health. A limited waste management system has left islands across the country littered with trash, a huge portion of which are single-use plastics. These materials end up in the ocean, inside marine life, and ultimately, on Maldivians' dinner plates. According to the Maldives' Environment Ministry, every year, 104 million non-biodegradable plastic bags are imported into the Maldives—and in the capital city alone, waste generation increased by 155 percent over the past decade.
“One day, I was almost suffocated by a plastic bag when diving with my brother.” – a 10-year-old boy in the Maldives
Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs)
UNICEF works with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and partners to establish Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) to plan for and respond to emergencies in each island. Each CERT is made up of volunteers, the majority of whom are young people interested in giving back to their communities. These volunteers are trained on first aid, basic firefighting, flood management, and water, sanitation and hygiene in emergencies. CERTs are also taught about the risks children and families face in an emergency. UNICEF supports the government to provide CERTs with the essential equipment to mitigate a crisis, such as dewatering pumps and accessories.
Prior to the development of the CERTs, if a disaster broke out on an island, communities would have to wait for a national team of responders from the Maldives National Defense Force to arrive at the scene. Now, CERTs are ready to jump into action whenever a crisis occurs. After the success of this UNICEF-supported programme in 2017, the government has committed to establishing CERTs across the country.
Promoting environmentally friendly behaviors
UNICEF advocates for the promotion of sustainable, climate friendly practices in the Maldives. In 2018, for example, UNICEF provided BPA-free, reusable water bottles to first graders across the country to reduce single-use plastic water bottle use and promote drinking more water over sugary drinks. And in 2019, we distributed reusable cloth shopping bags to communities around the capital city, advocating for a reduction of single-use plastic while shopping. In addition, we are working with the private sector to install water filtration systems in schools across the country, providing a safe, environmentally conscious water source for students.
By targeting children, we draw on their ability to be change agents for families, peers and communities. These interventions are part of a national campaign to promote environmental sustainability and reduce plastic waste across the country.
Integrating child and gender-sensitive disaster risk reduction into island planning
UNICEF works with NDMA and island councils to embed disaster risk reduction planning and response into local island development strategies. We support the government to conduct participatory island disaster management planning workshops to convene people from different sectors of the island. Together, attendees brainstorm, design and launch context-specific disaster preparedness and response plans. Each of these plans consider the resources and population of an island.
By guiding this process, UNICEF ensures children are kept at the forefront of disaster risk response planning. We also ensure adolescents and young people – especially girls and women – are fully engaged in planning and response preparation, as they are often the most affected when an emergency or disaster occurs.
In addition, UNICEF works at the national level to integrate climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction into country-wide environmental sector policies.
Studying the effects of climate change on children
In 2017, together with the Ministry of Environment, we spoke to hundreds of children, parents and key community members (including teachers, health care staff and counselors) of six islands to gain a better understanding of how children view climate change, and how weather-related events are impacting their lives.
We found that children and adolescents are aware of what is happening to their environment, and that as a whole, they feel strongly about protecting their communities. They reported that high temperatures have made it difficult for them to study in school, and increased heat and sun have sparked skin disease and dehydration. They also noted a lack of potable water at home and at school. In addition, children talked about the abundance of trash and poor waste management in their communities, and how garbage flow increases disease rates. These findings help influence policies and programming at the community, atoll and national levels.