Urgent action needed to put children at the heart of the climate response in South Africa

New analysis highlights the specific impact of the climate and environmental crisis on children in South Africa and provides key recommendations to protect and engage children in the response.

07 December 2023
Government of South Africa/2022
A mud-filled classroom in eThekwini, KwaZulu-Natal caused by unprecedented high rainfall and flooding on 11 April 2022.

PRETORIA, 06 December 2023 – Extra effort must be placed on ensuring that children and young people are better protected, more visible and empowered to actively respond to the climate and environmental crisis, according to the Climate, Energy and Environment Landscape Analysis for Children in South Africa’ released today.

The analysis, developed by UNICEF South Africa and the Department of Water and Sanitation, is published ahead of the children and youth focused day at the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework on Climate Change (COP28) in Dubai on 08 December.

“The climate crisis is not just changing the planet, it is changing children’s lives and is a child rights crisis,” said Christine Muhigana, UNICEF South Africa Representative. “This analysis reaffirms the urgent need to ensure that the voices and skills of children and young people are heard and engaged with through policies and direct action,” added Muhigana.

The analysis highlights the growing climate and environment threats for children across South Africa, including the increasing trend in the number of heat wave days, drought, and flooding, as well as the degradation of water and natural resources and air pollution.

“Children are not little adults. Their bodies and minds are affected in particular ways, and they are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation” said Muhigana.

The analysis notes that heat stress negatively affects the mental health of children, as well as their ability to learn and concentrate on schoolwork, and to play outside. Extreme weather events impact water and sanitation systems and can increase child abuse rates following loss of livelihoods, reduced access to child services, and displacement where families are forced into crowded spaces. Children with limited access to safe water and nutritious food are at increased risk of water-borne disease and malnutrition and air pollution is a major child health risk leading to conditions such as asthma.

Despite the impact on children, their needs and perspectives are still too absent in climate policies, action, and investment at all levels. The recommendations in the analysis aim to better protect children and to enable their potential to lead positive change, including through:  

  • Increasing the visibility of children in the climate, energy, and environment (CEE) agenda, including policies and strategies, through specific language on children.
  • Improving data collection and increasing research on the special needs of children.
  • Mainstreaming, scaling up, and integrating CEE issues within child-focused or child responsive policies, programmes and plans, including designing and implementing a ‘Nutrition-WASH Climate Resilience Programme’.
  • Increasing collaboration among government agencies and non-governmental actors.
  • Mobilising resources for child responsive action, addressing funding gaps for children and mainstreaming climate change into child protection.
  • Integrating CEE issues into formal and non-formal education and building skills and promoting jobs for youth in green and climate-resilient activities.

UNICEF South Africa works to incorporate climate and environmental action and advocacy across its mandated areas of work including through:

Empowering every child through their life course to engage in and be a champion for climate and environmental action through climate education, green skills, and participation.

  • Engaging young ‘Enviro Champs’ through citizen science work on community level environmental action.
  • Encouraging and incentivizing child and youth-led environmental and climate ideas and solutions through online platforms and digital challenges such as through the Youth Agency Marketplace
  • Supporting ‘Sport for Climate Change and the Environment’ and ‘Youth Reporters Groups’ through schools and community radio stations.

Protecting every child by adapting essential child services to a changing climate.

  • Promoting climate resilient water, sanitation and hygiene solutions, such as the China – South Africa dialogue.
  • Incorporating renewable and sustainable energy solutions into health systems, such as solar powered vaccine cold chain facilities.

Notes to editors:

The Climate, Energy and Environment Landscape Analysis for Children in South Africa’ was developed through a three-pronged approach, including a desk review of relevant reports and data, multiple stakeholder engagement and site visits to directly engage with children and young people.

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 works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.

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