Do children living in slums know how their lives will be affected by climate change?

July 13, 2015 by

In the coming years, countries and communities will bear the brunt of climate change. Future projections of the rise in temperature and sea level along with increase in natural disasters are feared. However, we tend to forget that it is the future generation who will have to live through these consequences. It is widely asserted that the poor, in particular children, will be most affected – greater physical exposure to natural hazards and increased risks of health being two of the main reasons.

A growing number of people rush to the slums of Dhaka to escape the increased frequency of natural disasters in rural Bangladesh. Climate induced migration rarely offers these individuals with any long-term security from environmental hazards since living conditions in slums are just as precarious, given how poor the infrastructure is. Are children in the slums of Dhaka aware about the risks and vulnerabilities of climate change? More importantly, do they even know what climate change is?

Korail is one of the largest slums in Bangladesh. The 100 acre settlement sprawled across the heart of the city is home to more than 50,000 families. To give a second chance at education to this vulnerable population, BRAC currently runs over a hundred pre-primary and primary schools. We approached two fourth grade classrooms where none of the students knew about climate change. During an informal discussion, we explained how summers are much hotter now, and how extreme the cold was last winter. Come to think about it, it should be hard for ten–year-olds to comprehend the concept of climate changes they have not lived long enough to justify the ‘now and then’ scenario of weather patterns.

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Most have however, had first hand experiences with natural disasters such as floods, cyclones and droughts. Around 80 per cent of the class raised their hands to floods once asked if they have encountered any disaster. Some recalled how their village had once remained inundated for up to five months making it mandatory for them to travel everywhere by boat. They have also begun to understand the concept of earthquakes from recent experiences.

Different disasters are experienced across various regions of Bangladesh. About 28 per cent of Bangladesh’s population live in the coastal belt. Frequent cyclones, tidal surges in this region, for example, are one of the main factors that pull rural population to the slums of Dhaka, leading to over population in the urban cities. The future of these children will be darkened by climate change and its impact on health and sanitation. They are the ones who need to be oriented to it and the challenges involved. NGOs and policy makers agree that it will be the children of the five million slum dwellers of Dhaka who will be most hard hit by climate change.

But slow onset and invisible impacts make it difficult for children to visualise the concept of climate change. During the discussion at the classroom in Korail, we had asked the children if they could name any cyclones that hit Bangladesh in their lifetime. They couldn’t answer. As adults, we are responsible for using innovative methods to help these children understand climate and relate to the occurring changes. While incorporation of climate change and its risks into educational text books and curriculum is important from an early age, approaches of teaching can be tricky for this topic.

Bangladesh is among the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change. UNICEF estimates that 25 million more children will suffer malnourishment because of climate change. A collective effort must be taken to incorporate interactive activities, exercises and examples in teaching plans which would help them to outline the concepts of climate change properly.

 

Bithun Mazid is senior sector specialist at BRAC’s disaster, environment and climate change programme.