The five most dangerous climate risks for children

Debbie Dilger

The climate crisis represents an unprecedented threat to the future of all the world’s children. The summer has been one of extremes, with record heat, strong rains, forest fires and floods. But how far-reaching are the consequences of climate change? This blog article illustrates the five most dangerous climate risks for children through five individual stories.

A young girl drinks water from the tap of a water tank.
In the climate-affected Libemuket district in southern Ethiopia, a young girl drinks water from the tap of a water tank provided by UNICEF in response to the drought.

The climate crisis is putting one billion children in peril – that corresponds to almost one out of every two children worldwide. Among them are twelve-year-old Manuel Benjamin from Mozambique, 16-month-old Azaan Ali from Pakistan, one-year-old twins Naurin and Naushin from Bangladesh, one-year-old Alfa from Indonesia and ten-year-old Bukhari Aden from Ethiopia. They all are suffering from different kinds of extreme weather brought on by climate change. This blog tells their stories in the context of the five most dangerous climate threats.

Our planet is increasingly becoming a hostile place for children

The climate crisis represents an unprecedented threat to the health, nourishment, education, growth and survival of all children. Children are disproportionately threatened by water and food scarcity, infectious diseases and the impacts of extreme weather events. Changed weather conditions have negative effects on children’s access to educational programmes, healthcare, safe drinking water and other important services.

Children are also more vulnerable than adults to the impacts of climate change because of their different anatomy and physiology. They need more food and water per unit of body weight, are more likely to succumb to extreme weather events like droughts, floods and storms, and are more susceptible to the effects of temperature fluctuations, toxic chemicals, and diseases made more prevalent by climate change, like malaria or dengue fever. 

The impacts of climate change are also affecting children’s psychological health. The disasters, crises and associated threats to their future have triggered widespread anxiety and feelings of hopelessness.

In 2021, UNICEF published the report “The Climate Crisis is a Child Rights Crisis: Introducing the Children’s Climate Risk Index”, the first comprehensive analysis of different climate risks from a child’s perspective. The report ranks countries on children’s exposure to climate and environmental shocks.

Almost every child on earth is exposed to at least one climate or environmental hazard, but children in the most severely affected countries are exposed to several hazards, shocks and stresses at once. At the same time, it is these children who are especially vulnerable, because of inadequate basic care in the areas of water and hygiene, health and education.

In 2021, UNICEF published the report “The Climate Crisis is a Child Rights Crisis: Introducing the Children’s Climate Risk Index”, the first comprehensive analysis of different climate risks from a child’s perspective. The report ranks countries on children’s exposure to climate and environmental shocks.

Almost every child on earth is exposed to at least one climate or environmental hazard, but children in the most severely affected countries are exposed to several hazards, shocks and stresses at once. At the same time, it is these children who are especially vulnerable, because of inadequate basic care in the areas of water and hygiene, health and education.

Climate risks affect billions of children:

  1. 400 million children are highly exposed to cyclones
  2. 570 million children are highly exposed to floods
  3. One billion children are highly exposed to extremely high levels of air pollution
  4. 820 million children are highly exposed to heatwaves
  5. 920 million children are highly exposed to water scarcity

The following five stories illustrate five grave and manifold dangers that children face from anthropogenic climate change.

1. Cyclones

About 400 million of the earth’s children live in areas that are severely impacted by tropical cyclones. These rapidly rotating low-pressure storms develop over (sub)tropical oceans and cause flooding, storm surges, extreme winds and lightning.

Each year, millions of children are affected by cyclones. The frequency of high-intensity cyclones is increasing because of the warming and rising of the oceans. Tropical cyclones pose severe and immediate dangers, including grave injury and death, the collapse and destruction of essential health and water resources and sanitary services, and the displacement of many people. In 2020, there were over 9.8 million weather-related internal displacements of children. Such displacements also increase children’s risk of being subject to violence, abduction and human trafficking.

Cyclones also frequently destroy schools or make it impossible to reach them. This forces children to miss school. And once they leave, there is a very high probability that they will not return. A lack of educational opportunity robs them of their chances for a better future.

Cyclone «Freddy» in Mosambik
On March 11, 2023, Cyclone Freddy made landfall for the second time in Mozambique, reaching the city of Quelimane in Zambezia province as a severe tropical cyclone. UNICEF was on the ground together with the government and partner organizations, providing urgent emergency response.
Manuel Benjamin in front of his house.
Twelve-year-old Manuel Benjamin lives near Quelimane with his father and his three sisters. His mother died while giving birth to his youngest sister. He was just ten years old at the time. Since then, Manuel has been helping his father work the farm and keep house.
Manuel is working.
Before Cyclone Freddy hit, Manuel reinforced the roof of their house. “I’m not afraid of floods – it wouldn’t be the first time that I’d have to leave my house because of a natural disaster,” he says. “Mostly, I hope that I can get back to school as soon as possible when the storm is over.”
Drone images show the enormous damage Cyclone Freddy caused.
The first drone images from March 13, 2023, from the city of Quelimane show the enormous damage Cyclone Freddy caused to homes, schools and other important infrastructure. With wind speeds of up to 150 km/h, Cyclone Freddy was the strongest and longest-lasting tropical storm ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere.

2. Floods

Much of the world’s population lives no further than 100 kilometers from the seacoast or near rivers fed by glaciers or snow. This means that 240 million children in coastal regions and 330 million children in river basins are highly exposed to floods.

The risk of flooding is increasing steadily because of extreme weather caused by global climate change. Higher precipitation levels, stronger and more frequent storms, and the melting of glaciers and snow, as well as changes to the soil surface – such as the destruction of forests – increase the risk of flooding in river basins.

    Aside from the immediate threat of death and injury, floods impede access to safe drinking water. Seawater finding its way into freshwater reservoirs affects not only the quality of drinking water and thus the health of the people who drink it, but also the irrigation systems of agricultural fields. It also damages sanitary facilities, which in turn leads to water contamination. This exposes the affected population to diarrheal diseases, which can lead quickly to dehydration and malnutrition.

    Floods in Pakistan
    An aerial photo from September 14, 2022, shows the flood-damaged village of Aziz Jatoi in Sindh province, Pakistan. Persistent, torrential monsoon rains and the resulting floods swept away villages and infrastructure in all four provinces of Pakistan, killing almost 2,000 people – a third of them children.
    A boat in flooded areas of Pakistan
    UNICEF provides remote villages with medicine to treat malaria and diarrheal diseases and ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) for malnourished children. Ismail Bhand, in the Shaheed Benazirabad district, is one of these villages. All of the roads are underwater. The dirty standing water facilitates the spread of diseases like cholera and dengue fever.
    Mother feed her child.
    16-month-old Azaan Ali is also one of the hundreds of thousands of children in Pakistan who were especially at risk due to severe acute malnutrition. His mother, Reshma, feeds him with RUTF obtained from one of UNICEF’s mobile clinics.
    Family in Pakistan
    Reshma with her son Azaan Ali (16 months), daughter Fiza (6) and husband Saaein Bakhsh. Saaein Bakhsh: “Half of our house has collapsed. We now have only one room.”

    3. Air pollution

    Air pollution is one of the most devastating environmental hazards to human health. Every day, 90 percent of children globally breathe polluted air. One billion children – almost one in two – are exposed to extremely high air pollution (>35µg/m3*).

    At the same time, air pollution is a major cause of numerous deaths and illnesses globally, including pneumonia, asthma, lung cancer and heart disease. In 2016, an estimated 600,000 children died from illnesses and infections associated with air pollution.

    One reason is that children’s bodies react more sensitively to polluted air than adult bodies. Their lungs and brains are still growing, their immune systems are still developing and their airways are more porous.

    The most disadvantaged children, already suffering from health problems and inadequate healthcare, are the most exposed to the risk of illnesses caused by air pollution.

      Air pollution also poses numerous risks for pregnant people – and therefore indirectly for their children: Studies reveal a connection between high air pollution and miscarriages, premature births, neonatal mortality, low birth weight and infertility.

      The neonatal mortality rate is the annual number of deaths of children within the first months of life. In 2021, 2.3 million newborns did not survive this especially critical phase, meaning that almost half of the children who die before their fifth birthday do not even survive their first month of life. The neonatal mortality rate is falling more slowly than the drop in the under-5 mortality rate.

      Smog in Dhaka, Bangladesch.
      The high level of air pollution in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, puts the life of its citizens – especially low-income people – at great risk. The people there have little or no access to quality healthcare and hygiene services.
      A premature baby
      In Bangladesh, the neonatal mortality rate lies at 20 out of every 1,000 births. Most newborns die from having been born prematurely (31 percent). Globally, premature birth is the second-leading cause of death in children under five – after pneumonia.
      Mother holds her children.
      Mariam Akhter holds her eight-week-old twin daughters, Naushin and Naurin, in Gazaria near Dhaka, Bangladesh. The girls were born prematurely and weighed only about 900 grams. Mariam says: “Both of my twins have respiratory problems and need shots to expand their lungs, and antibiotics.”
      Uncle holding the twins.
      Naurin and Naushin are now a year old. Their births were registered and they are fully immunized. Still, the twins frequently have colds or fevers. Mariam says: “There is a nearby factory that makes cement and produces a lot of dust – that might be the cause.” The twins have been seen by a doctor around 20 times for their condition.

      4. Heat

      This year saw record-breaking heatwaves in both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres. July 2023 was the hottest month ever recorded on earth. The far-reaching effects of such heatwaves on children can be found in the report “The Coldest Year Of The Rest Of Their Lives: Protecting Children From The Escalating Impacts Of Heatwaves”. It states that, in just 30 years, over two billion children globally will be exposed to longer, hotter and more frequent heatwaves. Even now, 820 million children are greatly exposed to heatwaves that put their health and well-being at risk.

      In addition, heatwaves are especially dangerous for children because their bodies cannot regulate temperature as well as adults' bodies can. Infants and small children are most at risk of heat-related deaths. Heatwaves can also negatively impact children’s environments, their safety, their nutrition, their access to water and their education.

      Vanessa Nakate

      “As hot as this year has been in almost every corner of the world, it will likely be the coldest year of the rest of our lives. The dial is being turned up on our planet, and yet our world leaders haven't begun to sweat.”

      Vanessa Nakate, climate activist and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador
      Dried up farmland in Indonesia.
      An aerial photo from September 23, 2022, shows dry farmland in Bena, Indonesia. Across the country, the effects of climate change – rising temperatures, changed precipitation patterns, more frequent pest infestations and extreme weather events – have led to a drop in the quantity and quality of food production.
      Child suffering from malnutrition.
      One-year-old Alfa was recently diagnosed with malnutrition, and his parents are now receiving aid to help him. Around 42 percent of the children in the East Nusa Tenggara province suffer from chronic malnutrition.
      Family in Indonesia.
      Roby, Alfa’s father, is a farmer. He says: “The steadily dwindling rainfall has led to a drop in crop yields. This has put our family at financial risk.” Most of the population lives from agriculture. The drop in food production means that they can no longer feed their families, and that there is less food to sell to secure an income.

      5. Water scarcity

      According to the UNICEF report “Thirsting for a Future: Water and children in a changing climate”, about 663 million people worldwide have no access to clean drinking water. By 2040, around 600 million children – that’s one in four worldwide – will be living in regions with extremely scarce water resources.

      Water consumption has risen steadily in the last decades because of the increase in population, industrialization and urbanization, and these are putting a strain on the world’s resources. Even now, in 36 countries the need for water is significantly higher than renewable water sources can deliver. In the coming decades, climate change will bring higher temperatures, droughts, rising oceans and flooding, which will continue to have impacts on the quality and availability of water reserves.

      The poorest and most vulnerable children of this world suffer greatly from the growing scarcity of water. Millions of children are already drinking dirty water, with consequences such as the risk of lethal diarrheal diseases. In addition, many children spend hours each day fetching water instead of going to school and learning.

      Watering hole in Ethiopia.
      In the Somali Region in Ethiopia, there is a watering hole where numerous animals gather, having traveled long distances in search of water. After five consecutive failed rainy seasons, four countries on the Horn of Africa are experiencing one of the worst droughts in decades. Millions of children need urgent humanitarian aid.
      Child in front of a watering hole.
      Ten-year-old Bukhari Aden comes to the watering hole to help his mother, Dama Mohammed. After they have given the camels and donkeys some water, Bukhari and his mother bring home two more cannisters filled with water for their cows.
      Child runs across dry land.
      Bukhari has never been to a school: “In our village, the children are responsible for taking care of the animals. There is no water near the village. If there were water nearby, I could go to school.”


      One thing is certain: The climate crisis is not just an ecological problem. It is having damaging and profound impacts on the lives of all people, especially children and their futures. The climate crisis violates children’s rights globally, including their right to life (Article 6 CRC), health (Article 24 CRC), education (Article 28 CRC) and non-discrimination (Article 2 CRC). We must not shut our eyes to the devastating effects. If we want to pass on a planet that’s livable to children and future generations, we must act now. 

      Bettina Junker

      “Today’s children are looking at a future that – depending on where they live – will be greatly characterized by hazards arising from the climate crisis. There must, therefore, be more invested, immediately and urgently, in adapting children’s living conditions to the changes in their environment.

      Bettina Junker, CEO of UNICEF Switzerland and Liechtenstein

      The only long-term solution to lessening the effects of climate change is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Limiting the earth’s warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius will require ambitious interim goals and decisive action from governments and businesses.

      1. More protection for children

      Investment in education; improved access to water, sanitary and hygiene services (WASH); health, nutritional and social services; or simply fighting poverty can lessen climate risks for children and help them be more resilient. UNICEF promotes innovative ideas worldwide that combine climate resilience, environmental protection, and sustainable development.

      2. Allow children to be part of the solution

      We must involve children and young people more in climate policy negotiations. Not just because it’s their future on the line, but also because they want to participate: Across the world, children and young people are working for more ambitious climate policies. Governments, businesses and key figures must take this engagement seriously and allow young people to take greater part in the decision-making processes involving climate change.

      We must join forces to make these necessary changes! Let us work toward achieving a cleaner, safer and more stable environment for all children to protect the rights of children and future generations.