Mainstreaming children’s vulnerabilities and capacities into community-based adaptation to enhance impact

Below is the text of an article Caroline Borchard (of Plan International) and I recently published in the journal Climate and Development. This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis Group in Climate and Development on 18/07/2014, available online:


Children are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Despite this, relatively little attention is paid to building their capacity to manage the impacts of climate change they experience now and those they will experience in future. While child-centred approaches are starting to emerge in the field of community-based adaptation, these approaches are almost exclusively used by child-focused organizations. This article argues that mainstreaming children’s needs and capacities into broader adaptation efforts can lead to more sustainable outcomes that can help to build long-term community-level adaptive capacity. A series of short examples from the field are used to highlight the different contexts in which child- centred approaches to community-based adaptation are taking place and some outcomes achieved to date. The article concludes that while there is a growing body of anecdotal evidence that taking a child-centred approach to community- based adaptation can build the adaptive capacity of children and also provide benefits to entire communities, there is no solid evidence-base proving that what has worked in a growing number of cases is more broadly applicable, translatable to other regions or sustainable in the absence of direct project support. The article recommends that collaborative efforts between researchers and practitioners should be launched to gather this evidence.


Children are widely considered as one of the groups most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (Bartlett, 2008; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], 2007c, p. 52, 2012; Save the Children, 2009; Seballos, Tanner, Tarazona, & Gallegos, 2011; United Nations Children’s Fund [UNICEF], 2011). It is today’s children who will experience a significant intensification of climate-related disasters and, consequently, a key focus of soft actions for adaptation should be directed to building the adaptive capacity of children now in order to ensure that children’s rights (as children and future adults) are pro- tected in a changing climate.

This article provides an overview of the key climate- vulnerabilities facing children and describes the nascent child-centred approach to community-based adaptation, arguing that mainstreaming children’s needs and capacities into broader adaptation efforts can lead to more sustainable outcomes and can help to build long-term community-level adaptive capacity. The article also argues that integrating a climate risk approach into broader child-centred commu- nity development programming can help to make the impact of sector-based programmes more sustainable in a changing climate. A series of short examples from the field are used to highlight the different contexts in which child-centred approaches to community-based adaptation are taking place and some outcomes achieved to date. The article concludes that while there is a growing body of anecdotal evidence that taking a child-centred approach to community-based adaptation can build the adaptive capacity of children and also provide benefits to entire communities, there is no solid evidence-base proving that what has worked in a growing number of cases is more broadly applicable, translatable to other regions or sustainable in the absence of direct project support. The article then recommends that collaborative efforts between researchers and practitioners should be launched to gather this evidence.

Climate change and children

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) defines children as ‘every human being below the age of 18 years’ (UN [United Nations], 1989, art.1).1 It is widely acknowledged that children, as a broad group, are particu- larly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change for reasons related to their physical and mental development as well as their general exclusion from decision-making processes (Bartlett, 2008; IPCC, 2007c, p. 52, 2012; Save the Children, 2009; Seballos et al., 2011; UNICEF, 2011). Children are affected by nearly all the conceivable impacts of climate change. The ways in which communities and governments plan for and respond to the unavoidable impacts of climate change through policy processes and practical actions will, in large part, shape the ways in which children experience a climate-changed future.

Climate change holds the capacity to stall and even reverse gains in development achieved in recent decades and, accordingly, to impact on the full range of children’s rights enshrined in the CRC. States Parties to the CRC have committed to ensuring a broad range of children’s rights – including rights to survival, development, protec- tion and participation – are safeguarded through national policy and legislation. Despite near universal endorsement of the CRC, many children are not even aware they have rights, or, if they are, have little ability to claim them. This existing ‘rights deficit’ affects children’s devel- opment and increases their vulnerability to climate change impacts.

Why are children vulnerable?

Physiological impacts

The most obvious reason children are more vulnerable than (most) adults to climate change is physiological. ‘Children are especially sensitive to changes in the climate because they are physiologically and metabolically less able than adults at adapting to heat and other climate-related exposure’ (UNICEF, 2011, p. 1. See also Akachi, Goodman, & Parker, 2009, p. 2). Nearly every impact of climate change in every region holds the potential of sig- nificant impacts on children. Children are at greater risk of being injured or killed in a disaster (Bartlett, 2008; Costello et al., 2009; Telford, Cosgrave, & Houghton, 2006; UNICEF, 2007, p. 6; Waterson, 2006), the majority of which are weather-related. Children are also more sus- ceptible to heat stress and the health impacts of increased diarrhoeal and respiratory disease and changing ranges of vector-borne diseases, which we will likely see as our climate continues to change. They are also more at risk from more gradual impacts like under-nutrition and mal- nourishment as food insecurity increases (see Costello et al., 2009; Sheffield & Landrigan, 2011, p. 291). More- over, impacts can have much longer term impacts on the life of a child as certain incidences, such as malnutrition or illness during the phase of rapid physical and mental development can have long-term effects on physical and mental capabilities (Bartlett, 2008).

Psychological impacts

While children’s bodies are more easily damaged by extreme weather and other impacts of climate change, they are also generally more likely to experience psycho- logical trauma associated with climate change (see Farrant, Armstrong, & Albrecht, 2012; Frumkin, Hess, Luber, Malilay, & McGeehin, 2008, p. 440). Doherty and Clayton (2011, p. 265) distinguish three levels of psycho- logical impacts of climate change: acute and direct impacts (e.g. trauma from directly experiencing extreme weather events or the loss family members during a disaster); indirect and vicarious impacts (e.g. intense emotions associated with observation of climate change effects at broader scales) and psychosocial impacts (e.g. of violence over increasingly scarce resources and trauma of climate-induced migration). As the impacts of climate change intensify over coming decades, more and more chil- dren are likely to be exposed to one or more of these psychological impacts, with poor children least likely to be shielded from damage and less likely to be in a position to seek or receive adequate assistance after any climate change-related event. The IPCC’s (2007b, p. 399) Fourth Assessment Report concurs, stating that ‘There is also evi- dence of medium to long-term impacts [of climate change] on behavioural disorders in young children.’ These psycho- logical impacts are likely to have long-term implications for children’s ability to live a productive life – particularly children in poor communities. However, longitudinal studies will be required to definitively prove this link.


The exclusion of children from decision-making processes is a common practice throughout the world and is contrary to Article 12 of the CRC, which provides:

States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child. (UN, 1989, art12)

While Article 12 should not be interpreted as giving chil- dren complete autonomy in decision-making processes, ‘it does introduce a radical and profound challenge to tra- ditional attitudes, which assume that children should be seen and not heard’ (Lansdown, 2001, p. 2). This denial of children’s agency and right to participate in decision- making processes that directly affect their lives has implications for whether these processes will adequately respond to their needs. It also limits the extent to which these processes can benefit from the unique insights and innovative solutions that children can generate. Seballos et al. (2011, p. 39) found that adults’ perceptions of chil- dren’s agency is a crucial factor in deciding whether children are able to effectively engage in disaster risk reduction (DRR) activities. This finding is highly likely to be echoed in children’s engagement in community- based climate change adaptation actions, given the significant overlaps between community-level responses to disasters and climate change, and the DRR and climate change communities’ similar modes of operation.

Child-centred approaches to adaptation

While community-based responses to climate change are growing at an exponential rate, children’s active partici- pation in adaptation planning and implementation remains limited. Despite the still small number of projects specifically focusing on (or factoring in) children’s unique vulnerabilities and adaptation needs, research is starting to show that children have much to contribute to building community-level adaptive capacity than may be readily apparent (see, e.g. Tanner, 2010; Tanner et al., 2009). A recent study by UNICEF and Plan International found that:

The evidence […] suggests that the benefits of child- focused approaches to [climate change] adaptation are likely to be high – because children are numerous and experience the impacts of climate change more acutely than other groups and over a longer period, the avoided losses associated with adaptation to both sudden disasters and systemic climate change are significant. (UNICEF & Plan International, n.d., p. 24)

Taking a child-centred approach to development and huma- nitarian action will necessarily help organizations focus on the specific vulnerabilities of children. The child-centred approach to development is grounded on the recognition of child rights and places children (and their caregivers) at the heart of efforts to secure their rights and fulfil their devel- opment aspirations. Anecdotal evidence (some of which is outlined below) is starting to show that using the child- centred approach as an entry point to build broader commu- nity understanding of, and action on, climate change can be very effective. While approaches to adaptation do not necessarily have to be child-focused or child-led in their entirety to effectively address the needs and capacities of children, taking a child-centred approach to elements of pro- jects working on issues relevant to children will ensure their needs and capacities are addressed in ways that broader approaches may not. In fact, experience in the field at project level (as outlined below) is leading the authors, as community-based adaptation practitioners, to ascertain that mainstreaming child-centred approaches to working with children and with their caregivers and decision- makers into broader sector- or issue-based approaches to adaptation can help address multiple barriers to effective adaptation (including those based on race, class and gender, as well as age) without the need to launch specific separate adaptation projects running in parallel to other community projects (which can cause confusion and generate inefficiencies).

Child-centred approaches to adaptation are not just about increasing the participation of children in the decision- making forums that affect their lives – though this is a crucial element of ensuring adaptation processes do effec- tively address the needs and capacities of children – it is ‘equally about engagement with support structures and institutions, including households, communities, local and national governments, and international organisations, to minimise adverse impacts and reduce or mitigate the risks that directly affect children’s lives’ (Save the Children, 2013a, p. 3). Increasing the understanding and ability of caregivers (parents, teachers, community leaders, local and national government) to include a focus on the chil- dren’s needs and capacities in a systematic way when addressing current and future climate change risks (whether or not children themselves are in the room) is key to securing children’s rights in a climate-changed world.

Mainstreaming child-centred approaches into community-based adaptation – key considerations

Mainstreaming – as regards to addressing climate change risks and adaptation through or within development policies and programmes – as a concept, ‘has been borrowed from the development discourse’ (Klein, Schipper, & Dessai, 2003, p. 8), where it has been most successful with regards to gender, at the level of policy development at least (Moser & Moser, 2005, p. 12). There are a range of defi- nitions of mainstreaming, but most include the key elements of integrating policies and/or measures to address climate change risks through development planning and/or sector- based decision-making processes (see, e.g. Dalal-Clayton & Bass, 2009, pp. 19–21; Huq & Reid, 2004, pp. 19–20; Schipper 2007, p. 7; United Nations Development Programme [UNDP] & United Nations Environment Pro- gramme, 2011). For the purposes of this article, we take mainstreaming of child-centred approaches to adaptation to mean both including the children’s needs and capacities into the planning and implementation of adaptation measures and increasing the voice and agency of children in the adaptation decision-making processes that affect them.

There are two key considerations that need to be taken into account when mainstreaming child-centred approaches into sector- or issue-based adaptation projects: that age alone is not the most useful indicator of vulnerability; and that capacity provides a better entry point for building resilience.

1. Age alone is not a useful indicator of vulnerability

‘Vulnerability is related to predisposition, susceptibilities, fragilities, weaknesses, deficiencies or lack of capacities that favour adverse effects on the exposed elements’ (IPCC, 2012, p. 70). While children are more vulnerable than other groups to a variety of climate change impacts, not all children are equally vulnerable, nor are all children more vulnerable than all adults. As Bartlett (2008, p. 509) points out, ‘some children may actually be more resilient than their elders’. There is a risk that treat- ing children as a homogenous group will serve to mask or erase other factors that enhance or reduce vulnerabilities (including poverty, class, disability and power relationships). The category ‘children’ includes a broad membership – from birth to age 18. It is, thus, necessary to take into account the different capacities, capabilities and vulnerabilities of different subgroups and even individuals.

Children are generally aggregated into a broad ‘vulner- able’ group in policy and strategy documents from inter- national to local levels, usually with women (another broad non-homogenous group), elderly, disabled and some- times indigenous peoples (IPCC, 2012, p. 70). Such blanket descriptions of ‘vulnerable’ groups usually fail to give an indication as to what these groups are vulnerable to (IPCC, 2012) and provide differentiation of levels of vul- nerabilities within these groups (e.g., vulnerabilities of chil- dren under-five compared to vulnerabilities of adolescents; or girl child versus boy child). This results in a generalized failure to meet the needs of any one subgroup and serves to erase differences within groups. Girls, for example, often face particular vulnerabilities during climate-related disas- ters and barriers to adaptation due to their domestic roles and responsibilities and lower access to education (Plan International, 2011).

Hence, it is important to take the time and effort to break down differential vulnerabilities by age, gender and status in community-led vulnerability and capacity assess- ments. Children have an important role to play in this assessment process as they have their own knowledge of hazards, hazardous places and vulnerability that is often different than adults (Gaillard & Pangilinan, 2010; Plush, 2009). Despite this, the concept of ‘children’ as a group, limited by age (birth to age 18), can be a useful tool for advocacy and policy engagement. While homogenization is risky when implementing child-centred approaches to adaptation, when arguing for greater involvement of chil- dren in climate change-related decision-making at all levels it is, in fact, necessary. Given the choice between getting children on the agenda broadly or increasing under- standing of the differences within and between subgroups within the grouping of children, the former needs to be used as a tool to pave the way for the latter. Once the concept of children’s vulnerability – broadly understood and even homogenized – becomes a key part of local, national and international climate change planning, child- centred approaches can then work to increase understand- ing of, and capacity to respond to, the different capacities and vulnerabilities that exist between genders, ages and socio-economic status subgroups within the category of children.

2. Capacity provides a better entry point for building adaptive capacity

While it is important and useful to understand children’s specific vulnerabilities to climate change, if we are to put their rights at the centre of adaptation actions, we must also understand (and value) their capacity to create change in their communities. Adaptive capacity is more than merely the absence of vulnerability and we know that, despite their inherent vulnerabilities, children can be extraordinarily adaptive in the face of stresses and shocks, especially if they are actively involved in responses to them (Bartlett, 2008; IPCC, 2012). Adaptive capacity is a very broad concept, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007a, 17.3.1) defines as ‘the ability or potential of a system to respond successfully to climate variability and change, and includes adjustments in both behaviour and in resources and technologies’. Adaptive capacity is also highly context-specific (Smit & Wandel, 2006, pp. 286–287). A full treatment of adaptive capacity in children is beyond the scope of this article. Rather, this article builds on the examples from the field, provided below, to focus on the contribution that children’s knowledge, awareness and participation make to increasing adaptive capacity (theirs and their communities’).

Moreover, children’s active engagement in community- based action to reduce climate and disaster risks has benefits not only for the development of their own adaptive capacity, but it can also be a source of energy, resourceful- ness and knowledge for broader community-based adap- tation efforts (Bartlett, 2008; IPCC, 2012, p. 314; Tanner, 2010). As children interact with other children and adults, if they are well informed and supported, they can be effec- tive channels of information, role models and agents of change. Also, by developing children’s understanding of risk and ways to manage it, interventions are more likely to have a sustainable impact in the medium to long term (Turnbull, Sterrett, & Hilleboe, 2013, p. 19).

In recent years, child-focused organizations have tai- lored the child-centred approach to development for use in community-level adaptation activities that take as their starting point that a focus on building children’s adaptive capacity will increase a given community’s ability to manage the impacts of climate change – particularly in the longer term. This approach generally works across sectors and disciplines, helping community development projects address risk at multiple levels:

It is an approach that not only addresses system-level inter- actions (economic, environmental, political, social) and how they may aggravate current and future risks; but also focuses on the individual – ensuring they not only have the necessary tools to minimise the impacts of shocks and stresses, but are also capable of adapting to new realities and changing contexts. (Save the Children, 2013a, pp. 3–4)

Putting children at the centre of actions to build adap- tive capacity can have unexpected and innovative results. Examples from recent projects implemented at the commu- nity level by child-centred non-government organizations (NGOs) in a range of contexts can serve to highlight some of the broad range of outcomes that a child-centred approach to adaptation can achieve.

Child-centred approaches to adaptation: lessons from developing countries

A range of child-centred organizations are now developing and implementing child-centred approaches to community- based adaptation. Plan International and Save the Children International, two significant global child-centred NGOs, are increasingly engaging in climate change as a develop- ment issue and working at the community level, through child-centred approaches to adaptation, to build the adap- tive capacity of children and their communities. Many of these activities take place in the education sector and focus on increasing children’s and caregivers’ understand- ing of climate change impacts, local vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities, and how to develop and implement adaptation plans.

The examples highlighted below are drawn from recent activities supported by Plan and Save the Children and are all anchored, one way or another, in the education sector (e.g., because they may take place in school contexts, or because they may include a significant focus on increasing understanding to catalyse action). The examples below serve as a sample of recent approaches to integrating child-centred approaches to adaptation into the education sector (broadly defined) and highlight that working through existing systems and structures focused on children (like schools and children’s clubs) can enhance adaptation outcomes.

Climate change and education

In many instances, education can effectively provide the appropriate knowledge, skills and behaviour change that successful climate change adaptation requires – as high- lighted under Article 6 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which includes specific reference to the need to ensure ‘public participation in addressing climate change and its effects and developing adequate responses’ (UN, 1992, p. 17). Increased knowl- edge and awareness of the likely impacts of climate change at local scales and locally appropriate adaptation

options enables individuals and communities to make informed decisions about how to adapt individual lives and livelihoods as well as take action for climate-resilient sustainable development (Anderson, 2010).

While recognizing the importance of including specific content in the curriculum, Bangay and Blum (2010) argue that the challenges of climate change require all concerned to examine the degree to which existing educational pro- vision is adapted to and preparing people for radically different futures. There is thus a renewed emphasis on teaching and learning methodologies that are participatory, experiential, critical and inclusive with a focus on building essential life skills for a future in a rapidly changing world (Anderson, 2010). Climate change education needs to engage the full range of educational channels – formal and non-formal, and from primary through tertiary and adult education (Bangay & Blum, 2010). But it is also criti- cal to provide opportunities for children to apply their newly gained knowledge to better facilitate change in communities.

Creating tomorrow’s climate activists – building knowledge and catalysing action

A lack of information is often the first barrier to action but this is sometimes easily overcome. When given access to information, young people can be very quick to grasp the implications of climate change and also highly capable of advocating for change in their communities and beyond (Institute of Development Studies, 2009).

At a 2013 workshop in the mountainous-coastal rural province of Aurora in the Philippines, students from schools in two districts spent time learning about climate change and what it means for their lives. The children learned about their rights (as enshrined in the CRC) and how climate change will make it more difficult for them to ensure their rights are fulfilled.

Climate change is fundamentally a rights issue, especially for today’s children whose human rights (both now and in future) are at the greatest risk of violation in a harsher climate. In Aurora, the students identified the rights they considered most at risk in a changing climate – those that mattered most to them:

  • The right to play and rest (CRC article 31);
  • The right to health care, clean water, food and a clean environment (CRC article 24);
  • The right to an education that develops talent, personality and ability (CRC article 29);
  • The right to food, clothing, a safe place to live and to have basic needs met (CRC article 27);
  • The right to protection from any kind of exploitation (CRC article 36);
  • The right to live with a family who cares for you (CRC article 9).

They went on to develop advocacy messages for different audiences (peers, caregivers, policy-makers) and to work out which mediums might work best for which audiences (including video, radio, comic strips, theatre, lectures, stories, and demonstrations, for example). Armed with new knowledge and advocacy messages and mechanisms, the children are now developing school level strategies for increasing understanding and catalysing action, sup- ported by small grants with which to test the concrete adap- tation actions agreed at the school level (Save the Children, 2013b).

Education and awareness raising as a means to cata- lyse action through advocacy has also recently proved effective in a small project in Papua New Guinea, where the leaders of a community had been attempting to get government support for the construction of a seawall as an adaptation solution to local erosion and storm surge issues. Children participating in a community-based adap- tation project supported by Plan International and the Foundation of the Peoples of the South Pacific produced a poster and short video highlighting the impact of coastal erosion on their community which was shown to a Member of Parliament, who immediately secured funds to commence seawall construction (Foundation of the Peoples of the South Pacific International & Plan International, 2013).

Institutionalizing risk reduction education – getting DRR and climate change adaptation into schools

Increasing knowledge and understanding among relatively small groups of children is certainly useful, but for change to be sustainable it needs to be systemic. It is notoriously difficult to get “niche” issues into national curriculums. Many countries already feel their curriculum is full and many children probably agree – but this is likely to have as much to do with modes of teaching as the number of topics covered. Civil society and NGOs have, for a number of years, been implementing DRR learning activi- ties within school structures, but outside the curriculum – through parallel activities like DRR clubs often operating on school grounds but out of school hours. Others are even further removed, operating out of children’s clubs in community centres rather than on campus. However, increasingly governments have made commitments to inte- grate climate change and DRR into education as manifested in Article 6 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN, 1992). In the global education community, several stakeholders, including United Nations agencies (UNESCO, UNEP, and UNICEF), SEAMEO – the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education grouping, and NGOs (ActionAid, Plan International, and Save the Children International), are supporting national efforts to incorporate components of the climate change and DRR agenda in education systems and helping schools and communities build the skills of communities and learners to adapt to climate change (Anderson, 2010). In Vanuatu, the government recently initiated a process of national curriculum reform, which, when finalized, will include “cross-curricular components” common to all grade levels. Disasters and climate change are, by their nature, cross cutting issues affecting all sectors and all people. Teaching climate change only in science classes (as is the case in many curriculums) risks isolating it from the human processes that drive it and the human impacts it inflicts. Including concepts and information on disaster and climate risks and resilience strategies within the “cross-curricular components” would reduce the likelihood of reducing climate change to a scientific or environ- mental issue and ensure it is communicated across the broad range of subjects upon which it impacts. In the first phase, curriculum materials and teachers’ guides have been developed and piloted in several primary grades with support from NGOs. A preliminary evaluation of the teaching materials and learning outcomes has indicated that integrating disaster and climate risks and resilience into the curriculum has been an effective way of improving children’s understanding of hazards and disasters and, importantly, their knowledge about how to keep themselves and their communities safe. This gives a strong impetus for the next phase of the project, which will formally include the materials in the new national curriculum (Save the Children, 2013c).

In Vietnam, this process is further advanced. The Ministry of Education and Training and NGOs have jointly produced a booklet on climate change for students and a reference guidebook for teachers and facilitators. These resources were approved by the Ministry of Education and Training in mid-2012 and have begun initial rollout to schools supported by NGO activities. To date, over 300 primary and secondary level teachers from 57 schools in 5 provinces have received training to utilize the materials (UNEARTH News, 2013).

While significant challenges remain in integrating climate change into education systems, these are encoura- ging signs that the next generation of leaders will be better equipped to manage its impacts.

DRR goes viral – self-replication of risk reduction education

If national adoption of school-based risk reduction edu- cation is not feasible, there is always the option to go viral. In a project in Timor-Leste, NGOs were working with two schools in a remote province to help children gain a better understanding of the risks posed by current climate variability and extremes. Once the school commu- nities learned about the risks they and their communities face from the already harsh climate (without even explicitly considering the future impacts of climate change) they decided that other schools in the area needed access to the same information and set about providing it. Through the efforts of teachers the reach of the project was more than doubled, with over 12,000 children in 118 schools gaining access to information and resources with which to influence community planning processes (Save the Children, 2012).

While this process of sharing educational materials and new knowledge was entirely person- and paper-based, it is easy to see how, in this age of mobile connectivity, mess- ages and educational materials could be circulated more widely at a greater speed through simple text message based systems, similar to those used for disaster prepared- ness and early warning systems in many countries in the Global South. While climatic change is an inherently complex process, its implications (at the level of well understood trends) are fairly simple to grasp – as are the far reaching implications of inaction. Communicating easily understood messages via mobile phone could provide a useful extension of broader school and commu- nity-based climate change education activities. For example in the Philippines, children trained about climate-smart DRR decided to organize a “DRR Texter Clan”. Using mobile phones, they sent text messages to their friends and a wider youth network about weather warnings, tips for disaster preparedness and risk reduction, and raised awareness about child protection in emergencies (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction & Plan International, 2012, pp. 15–16).

New approaches for urban contexts

As the trend of rapid urbanization continues, there is an increasing need to work with urban children across the full range of development sectors. Climate change poses significant risks to urban children, although the type of risks and vulnerabilities might differ from their rural counterparts. Organizations facilitating community-based adaptation draw heavily on participatory methodologies that were developed for community-based DRR in rural agricultural communities, such as hazard ranking, seasonal calendars, transect walks and community mapping, and vulnerability and capacity assessments. However these tools for analysis may be less directly applicable in urban areas. In Bangladesh, children in Mohammadpur, a slum settlement in Dhaka, are working with a local NGO, Community Participation and Development, to trial the traditional community development and DRR tools to see which participatory methods and exercises are applicable to their urban context, which need to be revised and, con- sequently, whether entirely new methods need to be devel- oped. Outcomes to date indicate that some tools, like community mapping to highlight hazard prone areas and safe spaces, are directly transferable. Other tools, like the seasonal calendar, have proved surprisingly useful to highlight changes in rainfall patterns and associated flood- ing. But traditional consultation techniques (relying on getting groups of people to gather in a central location) need to be adapted for urban communities, which are generally more populous, less structured and more time con- strained (Save the Children, 2013d).

Children’s playfulness and creativity can also lead to the development of new methods or new approaches to assessing vulnerability and capacity in a changing climate. In India, children are using Lego blocks to create three-dimensional models of their urban communities, using different colours to identify risky and safe areas. The advantage of this technique is that the map can be revisited periodically to ensure it remains an accurate reflection of the community structure. The model also facili- tates children’s ability to communicate their views on risks and resources and to physically explore the impacts of dis- asters on their community. Involving children themselves in testing the applicability of common methodologies for their unique situation has resulted in a more context-appropriate and targeted approach to knowledge building and action planning than may otherwise have been the case.

Harnessing children’s creativity to foster innovations in adaptation

Children are often willing and able to use materials at hand in innovative ways to increase their resilience and help their communities. In Kenya, a climate change project that worked directly with students in 40 schools to promote understanding of climate change impacts and catalyse micro-scale actions to increase resilience in school commu- nities, resulted in near zero-cost innovations that have reverberated into the wider communities. On learning about the impacts of climate change on water and food security, children in a number of schools began using “gunny sacks” (large bags used to transport grain) to grow vegetables. The sacks require less space than a tra- ditional garden and also use less water. Parents and com- munity members began adopting the practice as the gunny sacks fit well in small courtyard spaces. Children also began developing larger school kitchen gardens in which they experimented with drought tolerant crops. In at least one school (Boy’s Town school in Garissa) community members, many of whom are transitioning pas- toralists, engaged with the children to learn how to grow a wider variety of crops. Community members also started purchasing surplus vegetables from the school garden (InterClimate Network, 2012).

Children also began collecting charcoal dust, waste paper and other combustible waste and making briquettes for cook stoves. The new briquettes burn cleaner than char- coal or cow dung and help reduce deforestation. A gradu- ating student has turned the briquette-making into a microenterprise, selling briquettes in the local market.

Several schools started collecting used plastic bags and weaving them into attractive and durable shopping bags. Others cut plastic bottles to shape and used them as impro- vised guttering and downpipes on school buildings to increase water catchment. The additional water was, in some places, used to irrigate school kitchen gardens. These low and often no cost initiatives have started to gen- erate change in the schools and surrounding communities, with families and communities benefiting from and often adopting the children’s ideas (InterClimate Network, 2012). With climate change projected to increase climate variability across Kenya and reduce rainfall in the already arid and semi-arid parts of the country (Government of Kenya, 2013; World Bank, 2009), innovative, low-cost sol- utions to increasing food security and reducing the use of resources can play a key role in increasing local level resilience.

Sometimes disasters can motivate innovation. In Vietnam, in 2006, 19 children in Nghe An Province died when the boat they were taking to school capsized after heavy rains caused the river to rise rapidly. This is not an unusual occurrence in the Mekong Delta, but when these deaths were reported on local television an 11-year-old boy named Hieu, decided something had to be done. Hieu was inspired to create change by the fact that many of the children were still wearing their school backpacks when they were pulled from the river. The idea of the floating backpack was born. Hieu worked to design a prototype, which went through several iterations to find the right com- bination of safety, buoyancy and utility as a bag in a look that would not be shunned by school children. Once the design was finalized, Hieu convinced his mother to start a business manufacturing and distributing the backpacks. The national government endorsed the backpacks and a number of schools in flood prone areas have provided them to students. The backpack won a national design contest and an inter- national design prize. Several private and civil society organizations have distributed the backpacks to children in flood prone regions, increasing safety (UNDP Vietnam, 2012). Climate change is projected to increase the frequency and severity of extreme rainfall events in Vietnam with con- sequent increases in flooding and increased river flows (Institute of Strategy and Policy on Natural Resources and Environment, 2009). This will result in more scenarios like the one that resulted in the deaths of those 19 children. While large scale adaptation measures are likely to be required in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta provinces to increase flood protection, low-cost innovations like floating back- packs have a significant role to play, particularly in remote regions underserved by infrastructure.


Analysis of the case studies shows that in many instances, children are highly capable of developing innovative, low-cost solutions to real-world challenges. They can quickly grasp complex concepts and develop action-oriented strategies to reduce risk and take advantage of opportunities. But children cannot create and sustain the required change by themselves, and children’s action groups for climate change need to be embedded into existing structures to ensure that knowledge and activities do not get lost when children graduate or when individual projects conclude (Tanner & Seballos, 2012). Approaches to build- ing children’s adaptive capacity should be institutionalized to ensure sustainability, and all action in this area should be child-centred to ensure all the insights, energy and knowledge children bring to this issue are captured, and to ensure that children’s rights (as children and future adults) are protected in a changing climate. Given these findings it seems clear that mainstreaming climate risk and adaptation into sector- or issue-based projects working with children at the community level is likely to be a more effective means of ensuring sustainable adaptation outcomes than establishing stand-alone adaptation projects. However, further evidence needs to be gathered to support this conclusion.

The key outcome of this brief analysis is that much more research is required in the area of child-centred approaches to climate change action. Children’s experience of, and capacity to manage, climate change is very under- represented in the literature. However, as highlighted above, there is a growing body of anecdotal evidence that taking a child-centred approach to increasing understand- ing and action on climate change can not only build the adaptive capacity of the children involved, but also provide benefits to entire communities. Yet there is no solid evidence-base proving that what has worked in a growing number of cases is more broadly applicable, trans- latable to other regions, or sustainable in the absence of direct project support. Collaborative efforts between researchers and practitioners could provide this evidence.


1. This definition is recognized by every UN member state except Somalia and the USA which have not ratified the Convention.


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