On 23 October, a woman returns home from a distribution site for UNICEF-provided rehydration and other supplies, in Grand Dessalines, a town along the Artibonite River. The river is believed to be contaminated with cholera. © UNICEF/NYHQ2010-2150/Marco Dormino
A clean and protected environment is central to children's rights. The earth provides a lot of the resources that are needed to protect children’s rights, such as the right to the highest attainable standard of health (article 24 of CRC). But as the global population grows and the demand for energy increases, pollution and misuse of natural resources are causing great damage to the environment. In turn, people’s health, food supplies and livelihoods are increasingly threatened.
A clean environment is especially important for children, who are particularly vulnerable to diseases. This is because children's bodies are not fully developed, so they have less resistance to illness. Also, in proportion to their weight, young children breathe more air, drink more water and eat more food than adults do, so they take in larger doses of contaminants, chemicals and pollutants. Poor health linked to environmental contamination and degradation can also disrupt education and inhibit children from reaching their full potential in numerous ways. The world is facing a number of environmental threats, including:
• The use of fossil fuels and the release of Greenhouse Gases such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is contributing to global warming and climate change. As a result we can expect to see more erratic weather, such as extreme summers, heavier snowfalls, hurricanes, droughts and floods.
• Outdoor air pollution from industries and transportation reduces the quality of the air in which we breathe, as well as our food and water supplies.
• Indoor air pollution, which usually comes from cooking and heating with biomass (coal and wood) without proper ventilation, leads to high numbers of infections and respiratory diseases.
• Overuse of agricultural soil reduces the quality of soil and, in some cases, to a point where the soil cannot be used. This significantly impacts the amount of food that can be locally produced in the long term.
• Trees and forests are disappearing, and this deforestation increases the impact of natural disasters as the land becomes more vulnerable to landslides and mudslides after floods and heavy rain.
• Globally, contaminated water is the leading cause of human sickness and death. Parasites, bacteria and viruses get into drinking water when the water source is polluted by waste such as animal or human faeces. Contamination can also come from harmful chemicals, such as pesticides used in farming.
• Chemical spills into the ocean, along with overfishing, are damaging the ocean’s supply of fish, which is an important source of food and income for many coastal communities.
• The numbers and diversity of animal and plant species in nature are declining as a result of changes to their environment. Reduction of biodiversity has a damaging effect on ecosystems, the finely balanced systems in which different species and actors in nature interact.
• The impact of biodiversity loss also impacts human health in multiple ways. Declining species will reduce availability of key ingredients in life-saving pharmaceutical drugs, , while the loss of many species such as fish means the loss of key protein sources for humans throughout the world.
• Changes in ecosystems can have unforeseen and damaging consequences. For example, bees play a very important role in spreading pollen. If their environment is damaged it will not only affect the bees, it will also reduce the amount of fruits, vegetables and other plants that humans and animals depend on.
The international community has made many commitments to take better care of the environment. One of the Millennium Development Goals is to ensure environmental sustainability (MDG 7), which includes specific targets on conserving forests, reducing the release of Greenhouse Gases, and protecting fish stocks, water sources and biodiversity.
In 2009, the World Health Organization drafted a Global Plan of Action for Children’s Health and the Environment. This is called the ‘Busan Pledge’, and it a road map for governments and other actors on what they can do to improve the environment for children. You can read more about the pledge at http:// www.who.int/ceh/en/.
In 1987, a United Nations Commission defined environmental sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”1 Human beings depend on natural resources to survive, but it is today’s children and young people that will face the worst consequences of the misuse and exploitation of natural resources and environmental pollution. Therefore it is important to manage these resources in a sustainable way.
Many children and young people are addressing environmental problems, whether they are organizing recycling and waste cleanups in their communities, or advocating for better environmental policies from their governments.