How Poor Families Cope with Environmental Risk

Today is Universal Children’s Day, the anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the United Nations General Assembly on 20 November 1989. Since Super Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines on 8 November, the news has been dominated by the devastation caused, raising questions over the extent to which weather patterns are becoming more unpredictable and extreme due to climate change. At the same time, mention is often made of the ‘resilience’ of the population of the Philippines.

While environmental shocks risks, such as drought or flooding, tend only to feature in the news once they achieve disastrous proportions, for millions of poor people managing environmental risks is a daily struggle. Poor households tend to be located in the areas within countries most at risk of exposure to environmental hazards, have more precarious livelihoods and so are prone to recurrent shocks.

Young Lives countries have been identified as especially vulnerable to environmental shocks by a World Bank study. Globally, Ethiopia is the country second most at-risk of drought; India the third most at-risk for flooding and Vietnam the fourth most at-risk for flooding.

Understanding which shocks are faced by which households and how families cope are essential to build effective policy responses. Young Lives research has demonstrated how children play a central role in managing and coping with risk within the household and families try to minimize the impact on children. Permanent school drop-out or children working for pay are reported by very few households. While there are cases of children dropping out of school permanently, or not starting school, this is less common than prolonged or repeated periods of absence, inability to concentrate at school because of worries about the home situation or hunger due to food shortage, and children taking on additional responsibilities at home. This can present challenges of balancing work and school, with families forced to make trade-offs between immediate needs and longer-term opportunities, as illustrated by Maregey’s family who live in a drought-prone area in rural Tigray, Ethiopia. Although he was eager to start school when he was 7, Maregey had to take over responsibility for herding cattle after his father fell sick and his brother went to work in a local stone-crushing factory. The household experienced repeated droughts which destroyed the crops used to feed the cattle.

By the time that Maregey was 10, he had still not started school. His father had died of tuberculosis and pneumonia, which had a profound impact on Maregey. He said: “I planned to register for school but I changed my mind again.” Maregey stated that it was his decision to work for the family and his mother added: “Since the death of my husband, I am dependent on my children’s support.”

Policies to improve children’s well-being and protect them from the impacts of shocks need to take account of not only of the centrality of children to household-coping strategies, but also children’s sense of agency, albeit enacted in highly constrained circumstances. Measures such as flexible schooling may enable children to work or care for sick relatives while still attending school and child-sensitive social protection that includes children and their caregivers in the design of schemes offers promising options.

The four guiding principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are the best interests of the child, children’s rights to life, survival and development, non-discrimination, and respect for the views of the child. The UN Convention relates to all children, everywhere (in every country that has ratified it, at least, so excluding Somalia, the USA and newly formed South Sudan), but its articles become particularly relevant when disaster strikes, and the fundamental basics needed for life and survival are snatched away.

Let us not forget that the poverty that underpins many children’s lives is exacerbated by climatic events all over the world, and children’s ‘resilience’ contributes to how they and their families manage these events.