Climate change: our present, their future

Thursday, 5 September 2013 06:22 GMT

Igen and his friends document climate change in their village in Indonesia. Photo: Plan International

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

An innovative project aims to build the awareness of children and young people about climate change and empower them to be agents of change in their communities

The impact of climate change is all too apparent to Igen, a schoolboy from a village in Lembata, Indonesia. Harvest seasons are increasingly unpredictable across Indonesia and the sea level appears to be rising around his community.

"Now from the field we can only harvest one or two sacks of corn. Many crop fields are failing. Farmers are not sure when they have to plant. From the elders we learnt corn harvesting used to be in March, but now in May it is still raining," says Igen, who together with two other children, is a peer educator in the village of Lembata.

Igen took part in a study trip to the Indonesian island of Bali, learning about climate change adaptation and practical skills such as how to provide first aid after a disaster. He’s now using photography to document the impacts of climate change and how it’s affecting his village. It’s a message he hopes to share with leaders and policy decision-makers.

Activities such as these are at the heart of Plan International’s Child Centred Climate Change Adaptation (4CA) project, a three-year initiative supported by AusAID taking place in 10 countries across the Asia-Pacific region.

A real threat

Climate change represents a real and urgent threat to vulnerable children and their communities. The impacts are already being felt. According to the United Nations, seven of the world’s 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters are in the Asia-Pacific region, which, according to the Asia Development Bank, accounted for 65% of the world’s deaths due to natural disasters in the last decade.

The 4CA project aims to build the awareness of children and young people about climate change and empower them to be agents of change in their communities.

Tree on the Sand is a student-led, environmental initiative on Vietnam’s Red River and just one of 40 child-centred climate change projects in Vietnam to receive funding from the project. Nhat, a high school student in Hanoi, and members of his school’s environmental club, lead the initiative. They are working with families in a floating village to address the lack of clean and regular water supply due to floods, rising water pollution and uncertain water flows.

A simple chemistry test revealed just how tainted and harmful the water was when a small amount was taken from the river and cleaned through deteriorating water filters. The group replaced the old filters with new ones made from quartz sand, charcoal and gravel. Besides the filtration improvements, the group also organised learning and play activities for children in the community on climate change and environmental protection.

“We are thankful for what the students did. The health of people, especially children, will be more protected. They are so enthusiastic. Who could imagine these kids at such a young age can come here and help? We need a new generation like that,” said Mr Duoc, a community leader.

The ability of communities and nations to adapt to change is crucial as the frequency and intensity of climate-change related events escalate. Children in the Asia-Pacific region will be at the forefront of these changes and can act as leaders in their communities.

Learning from each other

In the remote northern district of Pha Oudom in Bokeo, Laos, communities are identifying potential disaster risks, especially to children, and creating solutions that can be implemented by themselves.

In the last decade in Pha Oudom, 700 houses have been destroyed by flooding, affecting more than 8,500 people in these isolated and marginalised communities. It is one of the poorest regions in Laos and is frequently affected by storms, flash flooding and wildfires.

Activities are being extended and expanded into schools to empower the next generation of community leaders. A disaster risk reduction curriculum is being piloted in 30 primary schools with school teachers and district education officers receiving training.

“My school was torn to pieces. Luckily no-one got hurt,” says Nom, a 13 year-old schoolgirl. The simple primary school building, built from bamboo and soft wood, was destroyed in less than an hour by strong winds in 2008.

Plan Laos is now working with students to design and implement learning activities to prepare for emergency situations at school. Students will be trained to act as peer educators to teach their classmates later in the year.

In Thailand the peer to peer approach has been working well. Natcharin, a 13-year old girl who lives in Chiang Saen, northern Thailand, recently attended a 2-day workshop with 29 other children from four villages to create characters and stories to use for a shadow puppet show all about disasters.

Natcharin knows what she is talking about. Just in August this year, her village was affected by a flash flood. The community did not have a proper early warning system in place and many families lost their belongings.

“In our story, we want to talk about how it isn’t good to ignore flood warnings. I’ll use my knowledge to perform for adults and children so that they know how dangerous disasters can be.”

The story Natcharin is performing takes the form of shadow puppet theatre. It’s an effective way for vulnerable children and communities to better understand disaster risk reduction using easy, fun and engaging media.

Although it seems like all fun and games, the real world application of what they have learnt is potentially lifesaving.

“I’ve learnt how to make puppets here, and now I can perform shows for my friends and families so that they know and learn about disasters and are able to prepare for and handle these things,” explains Armonthep, a 16-year boy.

This kind of awareness and advocacy by children can catalyse action, as recently seen in Papua New Guinea. The leaders of a community had been attempting to get government support for the construction of a seawall as a solution to local coastal erosion and storm surges.

They had not received much attention until children participating in the project produced a poster and a short video demonstrating the effects of coastal erosion on their community over a period of three years, highlighting the impact of what these changes meant for their futures. After presenting the potential threat to their local MP, the community leaders were immediately able to secure funds.

“Climate change is an intergenerational issue. Adults and policymakers often focus on the now,” says Caroline Borchard, Plan’s Climate Change Adaptation project coordinator in Asia.

“The perspective and participation of children, who are always looking into the future, is invaluable. In the dialogue of advocacy and change, there is a huge added value that children can bring to the table if they are given a seat whether at the community or national level. In 20, 30, 40 and 50 years time, it will be these children, as leaders in their community, and their own families, children and grandchildren, who will be living with the decisions made today.”