5 Ways In Which Heatwaves Threaten Child Rights, from Education to Daily Meals

As temperatures soar across the world, extreme heat is putting children’s health at risk, locking them out of education and making them increasingly anxious about the future.

China recorded its highest ever temperature on Sunday, July 16, and nearly a third of all Americans – more than 110 million people, including over 20 million children – have been under heat advisories in recent days. Meanwhile, Europe is expected to see its hottest ever day on July 18 when temperatures on the Italian island of Sardinia reach 118 degrees fahrenheit.

The past few months have seen record-breaking temperatures across many countries in Asia, with children affected by poverty, inequality and discrimination disproportionately affected.

The El Nino weather pattern is also warming parts of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, triggering extreme weather events including heatwaves and likely  to trigger a new spike in global heating, with scientists predicting it is extremely likely one of the next five years will be the hottest year on record.

Here are five ways in which scorching heatwaves are impacting the rights of children:

A woman holds a young child while standing outdoors in a Rohingya refugee camp.

1. Children exposed to extreme heat are at greater risk of respiratory disease, kidney disease and other health hazards.

The more that children are exposed to extreme heat, the greater their risk of respiratory and kidney disease, fever and electrolyte imbalance, which can disrupt a range of critical functions. It can also cause severe dehydration, exhaustion and heatstroke, which if untreated can quickly damage the brain, heart, kidneys and muscles, being fatal in some cases.

Keeping hydrated, staying as cool as possible and staying out of the sun can all lower the chances of becoming sick.

But sometimes this is not possible, and children affected by inequality, discrimination and conflict are particularly vulnerable and most likely to lack access to quality healthcare.

This includes refugees and displaced children, like Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, who live under the scorching heat in overcrowded, congested shelters made from tarpas and bamboo. These children often face water-borne disease outbreak like diarrhoea and cholera that put their lives under threat.

16-year-old Justina, a child climate activist, poses for the camera at the dumpsite in her community in Zambia.

2. Recent heatwaves have seen schools close around the world

Even when children can go to school, the heat can affect their concentration. Child campaigner Justina, 16, from Zambia, told Save the Children about fainting in the classroom: “When it’s so hot, I faint. Last week, I fainted because of the hotness. That was at school, and I felt bad that it was in public. I don’t know what happened to me! I felt suffocated, due to the heat.

Heat can have a significant impact on education, with students showing lower levels of achievement during hot school years.  Research suggests that every one degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature reduces the amount learned in a school year by 1%[vi]. Heat exposure can exacerbate inequalities, with students from lower-income homes more likely to live in areas impacted by heat, and less likely to benefit from things like air-conditioning.

As well as limiting warming temperatures, Save the Children said that authorities need to adapt schools and other educational facilities to withstand heatwaves and include climate education in the curriculum.

In Syria, a girl stands in a tent after being displaced from her home due to conflict.

3. Extreme heat put food out of reach for children and families.

Across the world, crop failures and the death of livestock brought about by extreme heat put food out of reach for children and families and often end up pushing prices up for everyone, The record-breaking heat in the US is currently threatening crop yields, for example, and lower-income countries have been facing drought and crop failures for years.

Meanwhile in a recent heatwave in Bangladesh, power outages forced shops to shut down, wiping out daily incomes for families and putting food further out of reach.

Save the Children said that higher-income countries need to invest more in child-sensitive and shock-responsive social protection systems to help families and children cope and to invest in long-term planning that will build community resilience. Recent research by Save the Children and other members of the Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative (CERI) found that just 2.4% of key global climate funds can be classified as supporting child-responsive activities.

Afghanistan, a mother feeds her 2-year-old daughter who had been malnourished.

4. Extreme heatwaves can get in the way of a child's social and emotional development.

For many children, these heatwaves are coming as schools break up for the holidays. But with authorities warning people to stay inside, children are more likely to be cooped up, lonely and unable to do activities that are critical to their physical and mental development, such as playing with friends and physical exercise. This can also pose protection risks to children.

Malawi, a young girl who was displaced from her home in January 2022 when cyclone Ana forced the Shira River to burst its bank, flooding her home and all of the surrounding land.

5. Hot summer days drive up the number of people experiencing mental health emergencies.

Even watching the unfolding climate emergency at a distance takes its toll on the mental health of children all over the world. Research from Save the Children UK last year found that 70% of children in the UK were worried about the future they will inherit, with 56% saying they thought climate change and inequality are causing a deterioration in child mental health globally.

Meanwhile, a separate study in the Lancet journal found that more than 45% of children and young people[vii] across 10 countries said their feelings about the climate crisis negatively affected their daily life and functioning.

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