Children in South Africa at high risk of the impacts of the climate crisis

Water scarcity, soil and water pollution are the biggest threats to the wellbeing of children and young people across South Africa, according to new UNICEF report.

20 August 2021
UNICEF South Africa/2020/Yazbek
A young girl washes her hands at a community handwashing station, installed with support from UNICEF, in Diepsloot informal settlement, near Johannesburg.

PRETORIA, 20 August 2021 – Children and young people in South Africa are among those most at risk of the impacts of climate change, threatening their health, education and protection, according to a UNICEF global report launched today.

The Climate Crisis Is a Child Rights Crisis: Introducing the Children’s Climate Risk Index is the first comprehensive analysis of climate risk from a child’s perspective. South Africa is ranked 72nd among nations in terms of risk, with water scarcity, soil and water pollution having a particular impact on children affected by poverty and poor nutrition.

“Climate change is likely to deepen the vulnerability of children in South Africa,” said Christine Muhigana, UNICEF South Africa Representative. “If we invest now, we can make the services children need to survive and thrive – such as water, healthcare and education – more resilient. This will help protect their futures from a changing climate and a degrading environment,” Muhigana added.

Climate change and extreme weather events like droughts and floods can deplete or contaminate water supplies and in-turn unsafe water and sanitation can lead to or worsen malnutrition. In South Africa, more than 27 per cent of children under five years of age are already stunted, further underlining the importance of protecting water resources.    

“An urgent and collective response that puts children and young people at the center can still prevent the impact of climate change from becoming even worse,” said Muhigana.

South Africa famously avoided ‘Day Zero’ in Cape Town in 2018, partly due to people coming together to protect their water resources. Drought has again been declared a national disaster in July this year, with parts of Western, Eastern and Northern Cape particularly affected.

South Africa is also a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution affects the health and development of children. Toxic air can lead to premature birth and can trigger asthma, childhood cancer and may also increase the risk of chronic diseases later in life.

A youth-produced, ‘Reimagine our Future Declaration’, released on Youth Day this year, included an urgent call from young people for the country to mitigate and adapt to the deadly effects of climate change. The ‘Declaration’ reaffirmed the vital role of children and young people in the climate response, as those who will face the devastating consequences of the climate crisis and water insecurity, despite being the least responsible for its causes.

UNICEF South Africa is working with the government and other partners to improve access to safe water and to provide the opportunities for children and young people to engage in the climate response through:

  • Installing handwashing facilities in schools where access to safe water is limited.
  • Promoting the ‘Tippy Tap’ challenge where children and young people build simple water-saving handwashing facilities.
  • Collaborating with youth volunteers to monitor water quality through a citizen science programme across the country.  
  • Engaging young people in the ‘Yoma Green Challenge’, to preserve and protect the environment through climate-related community tasks.
  • Providing young people with access to skills and climate-related livelihood opportunities through the Generation Unlimited initiative and Digital Livelihoods challenge.

To strive towards a healthier environment and future for every child, UNICEF South Africa calls for:

  • Children and young people to be included in all climate-related decision making at a national, regional, and global level.
  • Focus on climate education, green skills and climate-related livelihood opportunities, to support children’s adaption to and preparation for the effects of climate change.
  • Increased investment in climate adaptation and resilience in key services for children, including water, sanitation and hygiene systems, health and education.
  • Reduced greenhouse gas emissions and a just and equitable transition towards an environmentally sustainable and inclusive economy.

Notes to editors:

The Children’s Climate Risk Index was developed with partners in collaboration with the Data for Children Collaborative. UNICEF also collaborated with Climate Cardinals, an international youth led non-profit which translates climate change research and information so that they can reach as many young people and leaders as possible.

Read the report

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The ‘Reimagine our Future Youth Declaration’ was drafted by some 150 young people, aged 14 to 24 years, from across South Africa who conducted a series of virtual workshops to agree on the final declaration. The document covers economic, environmental, and social considerations and provides specific recommendations. The sessions and drafting were facilitated by the South African Institute of International Affairs and UNICEF South Africa and were released on Youth Day, 16 June 2021.

Media contacts

Toby Fricker
Chief of Communication & Partnerships
UNICEF South Africa
Tel: +27 61 418 7486
Sudeshan Reddy
Communication Specialist
UNICEF South Africa
Tel: +27 82 561 3970


UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in over 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special efforts on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children everywhere.

Working with a range of partners, UNICEF has had a presence in South Africa since the end of apartheid and continues to work towards bettering the lives of all children in the country.

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