South Asia is experiencing the effects of climate change and so are children.
According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2021, India ranks 7th and Nepal 12th on the list of the world's most at-risk countries. Floods, landslides, and extreme weather have become the norm. What are the effects on children? What role can they play? Interview with Kyra Marwaha, Head of Tdh's multi-country delegation for India and Nepal.
How are families and children experiencing climate change in the region?
The Sundarbans, which lies in the West Bay of Bengal, is one of the world’s most vulnerable places to climate change. The region is affected by cyclones and floods every year. Those natural disasters destroy families' homes and crops. As they lose everything, they find themselves forced to invest their last savings to rebuild their lives. It is a vicious circle from which they cannot escape, and which forcibly keeps them in a very precarious situation. Because of the region's proximity to the Bay of Bengal, water barriers are often breached during floods, allowing salt water to spill over and flood farmland. The salinity of the water destroys the soil, and it can take more than a year to return to normal. In the meantime, other cyclones or new floods may occur, leaving no respite for peasant families and lands. These conditions make farming particularly difficult for these populations.
How do people cope with these challenges?
They survive because they have no choice. It is this lack of choice that drives them to find coping mechanisms. If social ties are very strong, some vulnerable groups are excluded from society and do not have access to community support. These populations are even more at risk of becoming victims of human trafficking, which is a major problem in the Sundarbans. Subsequently, girls and young women who have been sexually exploited and who return to their home villages are subject to a lot of prejudice. We have noticed that when there is a natural disaster, they usually lack support. That is the reason why they are the ones we are trying to help.
What was the most significant weather event for you?
In 2019, a severe cyclone hit the Odisha coast in India. Together with other respondents, we met with families to see what their most urgent needs were. This included talking to the children and going to their homes - but their houses were razed to the ground! The walls of the houses are made of mud and the roofs of grass, so it doesn't take much to destroy them. Everything the families owned, their pots and pans and clothes, had been destroyed. I remember walking through the village and seeing all the children taking out their schoolbooks and trying to dry them outside. They would sit by it, turning each page and letting it dry before moving on to the next. I was struck by the care and the value they placed on education!
What did the children need most?
Fear was very present! It is terrifying for anyone to know that a cyclone is coming, that their house is probably going to collapse, that they are going to lose everything. As these events happen every year, it creates a continuous trauma. The children are intelligent and know that their parents may be unemployed if their crops are destroyed. So, it is very scary for them. Therefore, mental health and psychosocial support activities are so important in these emergencies.
What is Tdh doing to address these challenges?
One of our ambitions is to study the impact of climate change on health, protection, and migration routes. We are going to launch a project to address these issues in the Sundarbans, which can then be extended to other regions. With our experience in the region, our existing partnerships, and projects in health facilities and communities, we can integrate climate change into our activities. Mental health and psychosocial support are areas that are not often addressed by other organisations and where Tdh has a lot of experience. These aspects are crucial for children, especially in the event of a disaster.
What is the role of children in this situation?
Children are defenders of the environment! They can see the consequences of climate change on their own lives. Giving them a platform to express themselves and carry out advocacy actions is a key role for Tdh. We need to help children make their voices heard on this issue, which is so important for their future.
What do you hope for the families in Asia?
Ideally, we would like the natural disasters to stop, but we know that they won't. On the contrary, they will continue to increase in frequency and intensity. However, I hope that we will all become better informed and aware of the seriousness of this problem and that we will start to make smarter choices, especially governments and policymakers. The majority of communities affected by climate change are already living in vulnerable conditions, such as in the fishing and farming villages of the Sundarbans. We need to give these communities a platform to make their voices heard on this issue. I hope that their voices can influence climate change policies so that this issue eventually becomes a global priority.
Kyra Marwaha, Head of Tdh's multi-country delegation for India and Nepal.
Crédits photos: ©Tdh/François Struzik