We can expect climate change to alter the frequency, magnitude, timing, and location of many natural hazards. For example, heat waves are likely to become more frequent, and heavy downpours and flooding more common and more intense. Hurricanes will likely grow more dangerous, rising sea levels will mean more coastal flooding, and more-frequent and more-intense droughts will produce more wildfires. Children, particularly the poor and those in developing countries, are at risk.
Carolyn Kousky considers three ways that natural disasters may harm children disproportionately, often with long-lasting effects. First, disasters can damage children’s physical health. Children may be injured or killed, but they may also suffer from such things as malnutrition caused by disruptions in food supply or diarrheal illness caused by contaminated water. Moreover, disasters can cut off access to medical care, even for non-disaster-related illnesses. Second, disasters can cause mental health problems. Not only are disasters themselves stressful and frightening, but children can suffer psychological harm from the damage to their homes and possessions; from migration; from the grief of losing loved ones; from seeing parents or caregivers undergo stress; from neglect and abuse; and from breakdowns in social networks, neighborhoods, and local economies. Third, disasters can interrupt children’s education by displacing families, destroying schools, and pushing children into the labor force to help their families make ends meet in straitened times.
How can we mitigate the dangers to children even as disasters become more powerful and more frequent? For one thing, we can prepare for disasters before they strike, for example, by strengthening school buildings and houses. Kousky also describes actions that have been proven to help children after a disaster, such as quickly reuniting them with parents and caregivers. Finally, a range of policies not designed for disasters can nonetheless help mitigate the harm disasters cause children and their families. In fact, Kousky writes, using existing safety net programs may be easier, faster, and more effective than creating entirely new programs after a disaster occurs.