The impacts of climate change put almost every child at risk

Climate and environmental hazards are having devastating impacts on the well-being and future of children.

Women carrying buckets over their heads walk along with children to collect water in Zambia.
19 August 2021

2020 was the hottest year on record. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are the highest they have been in at least 3.5 million years.

In many parts of the world, people are facing multiple climate-related impacts such as severe drought and flooding, air pollution and water scarcity, leaving their children vulnerable to malnutrition and disease. Almost every child on earth is exposed to at least one of these climate and environmental hazards. Without urgent action, this number will go up.

Approximately 1 billion children are at an 'extremely high risk' of the impacts of the climate crisis.

These children experience multiple climate shocks combined with poor essential services such as water, sanitation and healthcare. As climate change disrupts the environment, children are being forced to grow up in an increasingly dangerous world. This is a crisis that threatens their health, nutrition, education, development, survival and future.

Above: Women and children walk to collect water from a well in the Gwembe Valley, Zambia. Since 2018, the area has been deeply affected by drought that has left 2.3 million Zambians in severe food insecurity.


A woman and child walk on snow on a hazy day in Afghanistan

On a heavily polluted morning, a mother walks with her daughter across a snow-covered area of Kabul, Afghanistan.

Children in Kabul are at increased risk of respiratory infections including pneumonia, from the burning of fossil fuels and other environmental contaminants. Child deaths from pneumonia, the biggest single killer of children, are concentrated in the world’s poorest countries.

In January 2020, UNICEF and other leading health and children’s organisations hosted world leaders at the Global Forum on Childhood Pneumonia, the first international forum of its kind, where commitments were sought from governments to reduce pneumonia deaths.


Two boys riding a bicycle on a dusty road

Children riding a bicycle on a severely polluted road in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Air pollution in Dhaka is contributing to health complications like asthma, dust allergy, heart disease and lung cancer.

UNICEF is teaming up with young climate activists to raise awareness about climate change and the need to act. We brought together 300 “child parliamentarians” from all over Bangladesh to debate climate issues, policies and actions with their elected representatives. Through the Children’s Climate Summit, 1 million Bangladeshi children have been consulted on climate change and ways to safeguard their future.


A man holding a child on his shoulders wades through flood waters

A man and his son wade through floodwaters on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In 2020, the country was hit by some of the worst flooding it has experienced in almost a decade, affecting the livelihoods of 900,000 people. Schools were shut and the risk of waterborne diseases and food insecurity increased in affected communities.

UNICEF supported the Government’s Floods Response Plan and helped more than 250,000 people in the most affected areas with water, sanitation and hygiene supplies, first aid kits and textbooks for primary and secondary schools.

Cote d’Ivoire

A woman collects plastic waste in Abidjan

Ki Mariam, 31, is a plastic waste collector in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.

Over the next 30 years, the world may produce four times more plastic than ever before. Without plastic waste management, groundwater pollution, plastic-clogged drains and air pollution from burning trash may threaten access to clean water, continue to cause flooding and pose major environmental and health risks. 

Mariam sells the plastic she collects to UNICEF partner Conceptos Plasticos, an environmental startup that turns plastic waste into construction materials for new schools. Bricks made from 100 per cent plastic waste are cost-effective, durable, and easy to assemble.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Children play on parched earth outside their school

When heavy rains caused the Mutahyo River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to overflow in 2020, several villages and farming areas were flooded. Eighty per cent of the fields in Masisi Territory were damaged or completely destroyed and livestock and food stocks were washed away.

Teachers and parents in the area were worried that children wouldn’t be able to start their school year. UNICEF responded by supporting the Government with a safe school reopening campaign that reached 3.6 million children. Water supply and hand-washing infrastructure were constructed and rehabilitated, and hygiene materials delivered.


A group of boys sitting inside a library without a roof

Students Ame, Paula, Ratu Luke and Semi Nataba, in the school library destroyed by Tropical Cyclone Yasa in Fiji in January 2021.

When this category five cyclone, expected to affect more than 850,000 Fijians, made landfall in Fiji, UNICEF was on standby to respond, by providing tents and basic supplies to support learning needs and help children regain a sense of normalcy as soon as possible after the disaster.


A family assesses their destroyed property

Sonia Magaly Pa and her two children, Hernan, 13, and Dafne, 7, assess the damage after Hurricanes Eta and Iota passed through Guatemala in 2020. They lost their home and most of their belongings and had to move into a temporary shelter.

The storms caused landslides and flooding affecting nearly 1.9 million people. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, limited access to safe water further increases the risk of a disease outbreak. For this reason UNICEF distributed 1,900 hygiene kits containing buckets, soap and disinfection tablets, and supplied water tanks and water quality tests for the affected families.


A family walking through flooded paddy fields

A woman carrying a child, makes her way to a relocation centre through a flooded area in Mozambique. Families moved there seeking aid and shelter from Tropical Cyclone Eloise that brought powerful winds, torrential rain and severe flooding in January 2021. It damaged and destroyed farmland, vital infrastructure and thousands of homes, dealing a devastating blow to families still recovering after Cyclone Idai struck less than two years ago. Many lost everything in the storm and arrived with only the clothing they wore.

Before Eloise hit, UNICEF’s emergency teams were on the ground, preparing medical supplies, hygiene kits and setting up tents for displaced families. The risk of diarrhoea and cholera are a major concern during flooding and UNICEF is working with the Government to make sure that affected communities have access to safe drinking water.

South Sudan

A UNICEF staff member carrying supplies

UNICEF emergency specialists carry buckets for water purification and other emergency supplies, including hygiene kits, to be distributed along the overflowing Pibor River in South Sudan.

Due to heavy seasonal rains and flooding in several parts of South Sudan in 2020, UNICEF is focused on making clean water and sanitation, nutrition and immunization accessible, as well as providing family tracing and reunification services. We are supporting the safe reopening of schools in areas where they were damaged by floods or used as shelters.


School children walking through dry land

Children walk between crop fields in Zimbabwe.

The eastern parts of the country suffered the combined effects of Cyclone Idai in 2019 and severe drought in 2020. The drought led to food insecurity where it was estimated that 1.1 million women and children would require humanitarian nutrition assistance, while 98,000 children under 5 would require immediate life-saving nutrition assistance.

By supplying nutrition supplements, UNICEF supported preventative treatment to over 650,000 children and women who were at risk of malnutrition.

UNICEF's climate action

UNICEF works tirelessly to protect and prepare children and young people in the climate crisis by raising awareness, securing action and supporting children and youth engagement.

In 2020, and despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF supported governments in 74 countries in climate and environmental programming, and our advocacy and communication campaigns were active in 106 countries. 

We constructed 1,448 solar powered water pumps to provide water for households, schools and health centres while reducing carbon emissions in 41 countries.

UNICEF air pollution response programmes were being implemented in nine countries including China, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Madagascar, Mongolia, Myanmar, Serbia and Viet Nam. We also supported 57 countries with interventions targeting air pollution, lead pollution and other environmental pollutants.

>> Read The Climate Crisis is a Child Rights Crisis — the first comprehensive report on climate risk from a child’s perspective.