Friday, December 4, 2015

Climate change: What the COP 21 in Paris means for children in Cambodia

By Jorge Alvarez-Sala

A woman is forced to fetch water from a pond in Siem Reap province, as a result of the
2015 drought

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Jorge Alvarez-Sala

Today, a young Cambodian woman’s life changed forever: ‘Davy’ gave birth to her first child at a rural health care facility in the remote province of Ratanakiri.

Simultaneously, thousands of miles away in Paris, an event with potential to change the lives of billions took place: representatives of over 190 countries, including 150 heads of state and government, opened the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 21).

As far apart and as different in nature as these events may seem, they are intrinsically connected. While Davy does her best to care for and protect her precious child, the discussions and decisions made in Paris will profoundly affect her newborn’s future, along with the rest of us sharing this planet Earth.

The Paris Climate Change Conference is expected to result in a new international agreement on climate change, applicable to all, that would keep global warming below two degrees Celsius.
But why should we be concerned? And how might Davy and her child be affected? Two degrees doesn’t seem like much – just a bit warmer than usual.

In fact, the environmental and socio-economic implications of those two degrees are paramount.
Two degrees means that mosquitos will grow faster and spread to new ecological areas. The World Health Organization forecasts a 5 per cent increase in malaria incidence as a direct consequence of climate change, and this is anticipating the positive impact of malaria control programmes and public health improvements.

Two degrees can result in significant changes in weather patterns: In its last report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of an increase of frequency and intensity of extreme meteorological events given current global warming trends. This is especially worrying in a country like Cambodia, which ranks among the most vulnerable countries to natural disasters globally.

Floods are becoming more frequent in Cambodia. In 2011 and 2013, floods affected 1.5 and 1.7 million people respectively, and displaced over 300,000 people, most of them children. Many experts agree that a rise of two degrees Celsius will result in heavier rains in Southeast Asia.
This year, the El Niño phenomenon has been among the strongest ever recorded and has affected Cambodia and its neighbours, along with other parts of the world.

UNICEF research in five Cambodian provinces shows that in 2015, as many as 8.8 per cent of wells dried up as a consequence of the drought, forcing people to rely on unimproved water sources such as ponds, or to buy bottled water. This poses both health and economic risks to a population where the majority of Cambodians live on less than US$2 per day. Although climate change cannot be blamed for this specific weather event, the scientific community does agree that droughts like this will become more frequent and more serious as global warming worsens.

Children collect water from a pond in Siem Reap province during the dry season
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Jorge Alvarez-Sala


Cambodian greenhouse emissions contribute to a mere 0.06 per cent of all emissions worldwide. The average carbon footprint of a Cambodian is 1.31 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, while the average US citizen produces 20.40 metric tons.

Davy’s child hasn’t produced any of the emissions contributing to the problem. Nevertheless, she – and millions of Cambodian children – will pay the consequences.

The world’s most vulnerable, including children and impoverished groups, will bear the brunt of the industrialized world’s greenhouse emissions. Those living in areas exposed to natural hazards, and communities that are not properly prepared to respond to and cope with natural disasters, will suffer a disproportionate amount.

Davy’s baby fits into all these categories. Globally, there are more than 600 million children living in 10 countries that are most vulnerable to climate change.

We are all part of the problem. But we can all be part of the solution.

UNICEF is going green. By 2020, we expect to be become climate neutral.

In parallel to its organizational changes, UNICEF is helping communities to adapt to climate change in Cambodia and around the world.

We expect to see disasters become more frequent and intense. In response, UNICEF Cambodia is starting to build elevated wells in flood-prone areas. These wells will be more resilient to disasters and will not be contaminated and/or damaged by floods.

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