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Twice threatened: Nearly half of all stunted children live in countries most vulnerable to climate change

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Nearly half of all children whose growth is stunted by poor nutrition face further threats from climate change because they are growing up in the countries most vulnerable to its impacts, new analysis from Save the Children reveals on the eve of World Food Day (Oct 16).

The findings highlight the devastating double jeopardy these children face, with climate change shocks like heatwaves and drought exacerbating existing vulnerabilities, threatening to undo decades of progress in the fight against hunger and stunting.

According to the organisation’s analysis, the overwhelming majority of countries most at risk of climate change are low-income, and many are dealing with additional threats to child wellbeing—including economic instability, conflict, and diseases including COVID-19. Stunting is also widespread among these countries, affecting between one in five and one in two children.

Stunting damages growth and development in children who are undernourished or have poor nutrition and can have devastating lifelong effects—making them more susceptible to disease and infection, and damaging their physical and cognitive development. Reducing levels of stunting has long been a priority for NGOs, but Save the Children is very concerned that decades of progress now risk being undone as a global hunger crisis continues to unfold.

Of the countries most at risk of climate change, the analysis reveals that Burundi has the highest rate of stunted children (54%), followed by Niger (47%), Yemen (46%), Papua New Guinea (43%), Mozambique (42%), and Madagascar (42%).

Yolande Wright, Save the Children’s Global Director of Child Poverty and Climate, said:

“From Burundi to Afghanistan, from Mozambique to Yemen, we’re seeing millions of children suffering because of long-term poor nutrition. Many of these countries are also now facing a critical hunger situation—people are resorting to eating insects to survive, and filling their stomachs with mud and clay to prevent them from feeling painfully empty. We must act fast to address the immediate hunger crisis and underlying causes.

“Children affected by stunting are already facing serious threats to their long-term health and wellbeing—and that’s before you factor in climate change’s devastating impacts on them. We have the power to stop poor nutrition and the climate crisis, but we must act urgently on both. The international community must act now at both COP26 and Nutrition for Growth to protect millions of children from malnutrition and the worst impacts of the climate crisis.”

According to recent reports from Save the Children:

  • Children born in 2020 will face, on average, almost three times as many droughts and crop failures as their grandparents did—with children in low- and middle-income countries continuing to bear the brunt of the climate crisis.
  • In Burundi, more than 100,000 people have been forced from their homes due to natural disasters, mostly due to the rise of Lake Tanganyika, Africa’s second-largest lake. Many of these displaced children are only eating one meal a day.
  • In Afghanistan, which already had the second-highest number of people facing emergency levels of hunger in the world before the Taliban’s takeover, half of all children aged under five were expected to suffer from acute malnutrition this year and require specialised treatment to survive*.*
  • Madagascar is currently facing its worst drought in four decades, caused by years of failed rains and intensified by a series of sandstorms and locust swarms. One in six children under five is now suffering from acute malnutrition, with numbers rising to one in four children in the six most affected districts.

Save the Children funds and delivers long-term programmes around the world to address climate resilience and malnutrition. The organisation is responding to the global hunger crisis, which is an immediate survival threat to more than 5.7 million children under the age of five, worldwide. The Nutrition for Growth summit is a critical opportunity for donors and governments to step up and make the commitments urgently needed to address malnutrition.

Save the Children is also calling on donor governments to urgently fund the Global Humanitarian Response Plan as well as the numerous other underfunded humanitarian response plans, and support the scaling up of social protection schemes and services for children. The organisation is urging donors to prioritise humanitarian cash and voucher assistance, health and other essential support for families.

Finally, to limit the impact of climate change on the lives of millions of children, the organisation is calling for: a limit on global warming to 1.5 degrees, including by rapidly phasing out fossil fuels; an increase in climate financing to help children and communities adapt to the climate crisis; the prioritising of children’s voices, demands and rights at the centre of climate commitments; and an investment in safety nets for children and families threatened by the climate crisis.

Notes to editors

Save the Children’s analysis considers the distribution of stunted children across countries more and less at risk of climate change. The analysis is three-step.

  1. First, we calculate the number of stunted children worldwide by multiplying a country’s stunting rate and its population of children under 5. For instance, if a country has 5 million children under 5 and 20 per cent of them are stunted, this results in 1 million stunted children age 0-4 years in the country. Data for stunting is available for 120 countries and is taken from Save the Children’s Child Inequality Tracker GRID, while estimates of the age-specific population come from the World Bank.
  2. Second, we look at a country’s risk of climate change. To do this we rely on country-level data from the Notre Dame’s Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-GAIN) Index, which combines a country’s vulnerability to climate change and its readiness to improve resilience. The Index assigns countries a score from 0 to 100 (where 100 is the best possible score) and is available for 181 countries. Based on their score (i.e. their level of risk), we divide countries into quintiles (or 5 groups with the same number of countries).
  3. Finally, we link stunting and climate data. To do this we calculate how many stunted children are in each risk group (quintile). What we find is that nearly 50 per cent of all stunted children (68 out of 147 million worldwide*) live in the bottom quintile, i.e. the countries most at risk of climate change.

This means that children in these countries face double jeopardy: not only are they already suffering incredibly high degrees of deprivation, but they also reside in those places least-equipped to tackle the impacts of climate change, which is likely to exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and deepen inequalities.

* The real figure is likely much higher for two reasons. First, data were not available for countries with notoriously high levels of stunting, e.g. Syria. Secondly, data is pre-COVID and does not reflect the likely pandemic-related increase in stunting rates.

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