UNICEF - Children and climate change: Interview with Mia Urbano, author of Indonesia climate change study

United Nation Children's Fund - East Asia and Pacific Regional Office

Climate Change and its potential impact on human development is an issue of global concern and research continues to further our understanding on the issue. For UNICEF, our primary concern is to examine what impact climate change could have on the lives of children here in Asia and the Pacific, and whether government policies and strategies adequately take the specific vulnerabilities of children into account.

To get a better sense of this, UNICEF commissioned five country studies in Indonesia, Kiribati, Mongolia, the Philippines and Vanuatu. The UNICEF report , presents an analysis of the climate change trends and potential impacts on children in East Asia and the Pacific drawing on findings from these country studies, as well as children’s own perspectives on climate change and other research. The research was supported by Reed Elsevier , which works in partnership with the global science and health communities to publish more than 2,000 journals, including The Lancet and New Scientist.

One of the lead researches for the Indonesia study is Mia Urbano. Mia is a member of the research team from the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne in Australia and worked with the National Institute of Health Research and Development in Indonesia. We talked to her about her research on climate change impacts on migration and nutrition in Indonesia, which is part of a UNICEF series looking at climate change and children in East Asia and the Pacific.

Our own Karen Emmons spoke with Mia, and as Mia points out, what really struck the research team was that children could speak about the impacts of climate change immediately, it wasn’t an obscure topic. The children Mia met were experiencing bridges being washed out at a time of year when there shouldn’t be heavy rains; their fathers’ corn crops failing for the third time in a row because the rains returned too early; children describing more hardship, change, displacement, damage to their school and their home – very direct impacts.

Mia, what does this study add to the existing body of information on climate change that is already out there?

MU: We did a similar study last year looking at the Pacific, in Fiji, Kiribati and Tuvalu, and the most important part of that study, and this Indonesian one, is the discussion of adaptation. There is a lot of focus on climate change at the moment and on Indonesia in particular, with emissions-reduction schemes rolling out in relation to forest areas. But it is a disproportionate focus at the moment – with good reason – on mitigation and emissions reductions. But the protective response for kids lies in adaptation strategies . We found in both our studies that the focus isn’t yet on adaptation, and children’s issues within that discussion are silent or missing. What UNICEF has done through this study is to highlight the impacts and to initiate conversations with governments about them. Many of the good comprehensive sector policy documents on climate change have very little reference to children, if any. In terms of nuanced strategies that will make a difference, these UNICEF studies are good for raising that agenda and awareness.

Why did you focus on migration and nutrition?

MU: I think it’s a reflection of the visionary aspect of this series of studies commissioned by the East Asia-Pacific Regional Office of UNICEF. Our study looked at nutrition and migration because of the development indicators – Indonesia has a moderately high malnutrition rate among children, and it’s a country with a long tradition of both overseas and internal migration. There are likely to be child protection implications due to parents who migrate because of environmental factors and an aggravating impact of climate on nutritional levels. It’s not a well-documented and linear link yet but it was great for UNICEF to provide exploration of that.

Where did you go in the research?

MU: After looking at both the scientific literature and other relevant information available about Indonesia, such as The Lancet study on malnutrition and climate change , we looked in-depth and talked with children in two sites: first in East Java, which is a very populous. That included hopping across to Madura Island, which is just off the coast and one of the largest sending areas for migrant workers. And for the sake of comparison and diversity, we then looked at the province of Nusa Tenggara Timur, or NTT. It has a very different geography and environment, much lower population density, lower child development indicators across the board and people there are experiencing much more hardship because of the compound effect of poverty. The province is in the grip of droughts but is also having flash floods, at freak, anomalous times of the year.

We interviewed various adults and did some up-close work with children, giving them cameras in a method called Photovoice and asked them to depict the significance of climate in their lives. They came back with compelling images. We also administered an online and in-person survey with urban and rural children – we talked to a 100 kids through the survey.

Is there any indication that there is already much migration because of environmental issues?

MU: We were only able to scratch the surface because it was a brief assessment. But children and parents, particularly in NTT, talked about both parents – not just the father – migrating seasonally to cities for work. Mothers were doing it as well because of successive crop failures and children were left in the care of grandmothers. In our survey we asked if people had experienced either withdrawal from school because of financial impacts due to weather-related events or if parents had migrated due to weather-related events. We didn’t have a large sample size but we got confirmation of this.

What else did the study tell you?

MU: I guess the most significant finding is how climate change is likely to aggravate malnutrition and food security. In Indonesia, malnutrition is largely ascribed to compromised infant feeding practices, and there was ready evidence that, with crop failure and freak weather events, people were moving, they were being displaced and that food security is already presenting itself as an issue. Problems with food security mean that more compromises occur within a household. We heard stories of early weaning of infants from breastfeeding because it’s much faster for a mother to ask the grandmother to feed the baby a banana while the mother goes back to work in the field. That was one of the concerning findings. In terms of migration, it was more that the study triggered conversations on the impacts for children.

I think the most important finding from the conversations with children is that they feel they have very little information – and this is in a country where school enrolment levels are good. There is confusion and a disconcerting outlook among children who know that they’re walking into this future of climate issues but they don’t have a good understanding of it.

What were your interactions with children like?

MU: The two things that struck us as a research team in both sites is that children could speak about the issue immediately, it wasn’t an obscure topic. You have to find the right language to speak about it but they could then talk about it readily. They were very observant about what’s going on, and they had a lot to say. Some young people are having contact with NGOs or discrete projects in their schools where they’re encouraged to grow plants or turn off the lights. But these are almost surface environmental things. The children we met were experiencing bridges being washed out at a time of year when there shouldn’t be a rainy season. Their fathers’ corn crops are failing for the third time in a row because its dry season and the rains have returned too early. Children in Surbaya City were more complaining about the inconvenience of the flooding and how it changes their course to school. The rural children in Madura Island and in NTT were describing more hardship, change, displacement, damage to their school and their home – very direct impacts.

They’re observing these things but they don’t fully understand the big picture. They kept asking us for information. Some of the young people expressed that they were scared and yet determined to do something about it, but they’re not sure what they can do. This kind of thing was at the forefront of our conversations with them.

Based on specific data, how are children’s worlds likely to change?

MU: With Indonesia being a chain of islands, large and small, but with such coastal exposure, I think the inevitability is going to be displacement. It’s already happening. Unmanaged displacement means that these families or communities move to marginal land, like on the fringes of cities, with all the unfavourable environmental conditions that that will bring families and children. I don’t want to be alarmist – I feel the picture is bleak globally and this concern is not specific to Indonesia. The same response is required in all countries to make sure that children are included in what gets attention. Here in the Asia-Pacific region, with the youth bulge (the huge proportion of the population that is younger than 24), the population size alone merits attention.

What needs to be done to further this work?

MU: I know it sounds very self-serving coming from a university-located person, but I think it’s to make the link between data sources and to do more research, including qualitative research. One of the great initiatives we heard about is the UN family, with the World Health Organization included, supporting the Government of Indonesia to link surveillance and provincial data on weather information, disease outbreaks and the nutrition situation and to monitor it. It’s an incredible step forward because this year we heard accounts of the spike in dengue cases, with a greater case fatality rate for children. Public health officials could connect it to the rains but there was no confirmation through surveillance. I also think that longer-term research on migration patterns and child care in the household is needed. There will be some beneficial outcomes for children; we found that education outcomes were generally better among children who migrated with their parents to a better livelihood site but health impacts are variable, and child protection information is limited.

There needs to be a roll out of education and information to children on these issues, with constructive things they can do and some of the simple basic science of what’s happening in their own land.

What needs to be done for children?

MU: We asked in our survey, “What would best help you to cope with climate change?” We had a range of answers but the top response was almost unanimous – it was help us to do something about it in our communities. We were staggered by that response. They could have demanded more from the government or NGOs, but they came back with this altruistic response.

If you were at the table in one of the adaptation discussions with a few minutes to speak, what would be your main message?

MU: I’d draw on the groundwork done by Sheridan Bartlett at theInternational Institute for Environment and Development. She talks about the repetitiveness of the impacts felt by children – more malnutrition, more under-five death, more risk of injury, more risk of neglect, abuse and exploitation. While there is a lot to grapple with in a climate change response, children’s survival and protection absolutely depends on being included and acknowledged in what a country does. There’s the intergenerational justice dimension to this as well – they absolutely deserve to be equipped with the information to cope with this themselves and to support their families and communities to cope with this but also to understand what lies ahead. Children don’t yet figure into the conversation and adaptation is not getting the full weight of attention it deserves. Community survival really depends on adaptation support and it trickles right down to the lowest levels where children are supported.

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