At least 43 million child displacements were linked to extreme weather events over the past six years, the equivalent of 20,000 children being forced to abandon their homes and school every single day, new research has found.
Floods and storms accounted for 95 per cent of recorded child displacement between 2016 and 2021, according to the first-of-its-kind analysis by UNICEF and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). The rest — more than two million children — were displaced by wildfires and drought.
Displacement is traumatic and frightening regardless of age, but the consequences can be especially disruptive and damaging for children who may miss out on education, life-saving vaccines and social networks.
“It is terrifying for any child when a ferocious wildfire, storm or flood barrels into their community,” said UNICEF executive director Catherine Russell. “For those forced to flee, the fear and impact can be especially devastating, with worry of whether they will return home, resume school or be forced to move again.”
In absolute terms, China, the Philippines and India dominate with 22.3 million child displacements — just over half the total number — which the report attributes to the countries’ geographical exposure to extreme weather such as monsoon rains and cyclones and large child populations, as well as increased pre-emptive evacuations.
But the greatest proportion of child displacements were in small island states — many of which are facing existential threats due to the climate emergency — and in the Horn of Africa where conflict, extreme weather, poor governance and resource exploitation overlap.
A staggering 76 per cent of children were displaced in the small Caribbean island of Dominica, which was devastated by hurricane Maria in 2017, a Category 4 Atlantic storm that damaged 90 per cent of the island’s housing stock. Storms also led to more than a quarter of children being displaced in Cuba, Vanuatu, Saint Martin and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Somalia and South Sudan recorded the most child displacements due to floods, affecting 12 per cent and 11 per cent of the child population respectively.
Extreme weather displaced 43 million children in past six years, #UNICEF reports. #ExtremeWeather #ClimateCrisis #Children #UN #ClimateChange
Children Displaced in a Changing Climate is the first global analysis of the children driven from their homes due to floods, storms, droughts and wildfires, and comes as weather-related disasters are becoming more intense, destructive and unpredictable due to fossil-fuel-driven global heating.
The report’s stark numbers are almost certainly an undercount due to major gaps in reporting drought and slow onset climate impacts such as rising sea levels, desertification and rising temperatures.
“This is absolutely a conservative estimate, and possibly just the tip of the iceberg for some climate impacts,” said Verena Knaus, the UNICEF lead on global migration and displacement. “Climate is the fastest-growing driver of child displacement, yet most policies and discussions about climate finance fail to consider or prioritize children.”
In 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that there could be no further expansion of oil, gas and coal production if the world wanted to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate breakdown. The world failed to heed the warning, and emission cuts are wildly off track, according to the recent UN global stocktake, the most comprehensive analysis of global climate action produced to date.
In August 2022, unprecedented floods submerged a third of Pakistan underwater, causing billions of dollars in damage and displacing around 3.6 million children — many of whom went months without access to proper shelter, safe drinking water and sanitation. With every additional 1 C of warming, the global risks of displacement from flooding are projected to rise by as much as 50 per cent.
The UNICEF analysis detected 1.3 million child displacements due to drought with Somalia, Ethiopia and Afghanistan by far the worst affected countries. Water scarcity forces people to move due to failed crops and to find drinking water for themselves and livestock, but the true scale of drought migration is unknown as it is difficult to measure and radically underreported.
Meanwhile, the U.S. accounted for three-quarters (610,000 out of 810,000) of child displacements linked to wildfires, with over half of the rest happening in Canada, Israel, Turkey and Australia. In the U.S., fires are increasingly linked to the expanding wildland-urban interface (WUI), the zone between undeveloped wildland and human development, where more than 3,000 homes and other buildings are lost annually.
Earlier this year, entire communities were displaced by wildfires in Canada and Greece.
Overall, children accounted for one in three of the 135 million global internal displacements that were linked to more than 8,000 weather-related disasters between 2016 and 2021 — and the toll is likely to get much worse, according to the report.
Riverine floods pose the biggest future risk and could displace almost 96 million children over the next 30 years, according to the IDMC disaster displacement model. Based on current climate data, winds and storm surges could displace 10.3 million and 7.2 million children respectively over the same period, though this could be much worse if fossil fuels are not phased out urgently.
Given their large populations, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, the Philippines and China will likely have the most child displacements. In relative terms, children in the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, and Antigua and Barbuda are forecast to suffer most weather-disaster displacements over the coming years.
“The figures are extremely worrying and demonstrate the urgent need for states to recognize and plan for the link between climate change and displacement, to minimize long-term health, education and other developmental impacts on displaced children,” said Adeline Neau, an Amnesty International researcher for Central America and Mexico.