Children have greatest stake in sustainable development

by Lotta Sylwander, UNICEF Viet Nam Representative

If development is not made sustainable, today’s children will suffer in the future. World leaders gather in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this week to take stock of progress on sustainable development since the 1992 Earth Summit, and to lay foundations for the next generation of global development goals.

Children’s rights should be at the centre of these discussions as we have the responsibility to ensure that today’s children, and their children, inherit the same opportunities as we have inherited from past generations.

The outcomes of this summit have tremendous relevance for Viet Nam and its children. The country is particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change, a major manifestation of unsustainable development, because of its high poverty, dense population, exposure to climate-related events and reliance on floods.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has even identified the Mekong Delta as one of three extreme global hotspots in terms of potential population affected by sea level rise. By 2050, as many as 1 million people risk being displaced.

A 2011 study undertaken by UNICEF in Southeast Asia indicates that children are the population group most vulnerable to the risks accelerated by climate change.

They are already bearing the brunt of the burden and are likely to be affected even more severely in the years to come. This is because children are less physiologically and metabolically able to adapt to heat and other climate-related exposure, including a higher risk of contracting diseases.

Disruption of education is another child-specific risk. Children are also more likely than adults to be killed or injured during disasters.

Last year’s Mekong Delta floods cost 89 lives, 75 of whom were children. In other words, those who have least contributed to climate change are suffering most from its consequences. Since almost one in three people in Viet Nam are children younger than 18, this is a population group to be reckoned with.

Yet children and young people are also agents of change who contribute to sustainable development. UNICEF recently supported the production of a compelling video by young people from the province of Quang Binh to capture their peers’ perspectives on climate change and screen these to participants at this week’s Rio + 20 conference.

In the video, Nguyen Thi Than, an eighth grader from central Quang Binh Province, shares her fears about the heavy storms that battered her community last year – an event that is occurring more and more frequently.

However, the children’s message is not just one of fear, also one of hope. Through this project, we demonstrate that children are not passive victims but should be empowered to influence their future, claim their rights and voice their concerns at international, national and community levels.

Climate change threatens to set back the hard won development gains Viet Nam has experienced in the last decade and harm opportunities for future generations.

UNICEF underscores that children must be at the heart of the world’s effort to respond to the risks and threats created by climate change.

To this end, the Vietnamese delegation in the Rio Summit should speak out for children and ensure the voice of children in Viet Nam is heard. Back home in Viet Nam it is imperative that children’s issues are mainstreamed in sustainable development policies.

To respond to children’s vulnerability to climate change, the Government must furthermore continue to strengthen health systems and scale up health and nutrition interventions as well as expand social protection and promote environmental education and life skills.

Since climate change is an intergenerational problem, it requires an intergen-erational response. This is why children must participate fully in climate change adaptation efforts.

Global commitment and action to protect children’s rights and enhance their wellbeing should be put at the centre of sustainable development plans and strategies. Nobody has a greater stake in sustainable growth than children. — VNS

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