Human Settlements Discussion Paper – Climate Change 2

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Source: Figures from Murray, C J and A D Lopez (1996) The Global Burden of Disease: A Comprehensive Assessment of Mortality and Disability from Diseases, Injuries and Risk Factors in 1990 and Projected to 2020, Harvard University Press, Boston * DALYs are disability-adjusted life years
The quality of care

Basic to young children’s health, especially in difficult circumstances, is the quality of care they receive. As conditions become more challenging to health, so do the burdens faced by caregivers (Box 4). These problems are seldom faced one at a time – environmental risk factors generally exist in clusters. When inadequate water supplies are compounded by a lack of sanitation, by overcrowded living quarters, by an absence of safe play space, the difficulties can become overwhelming and unmanageable. Overstretched and exhausted caregivers are more likely to leave children unsupervised and to cut corners in all the chores that are necessary for healthy living. It is easy to overlook the multitude of worries confronting families in difficult situations. The sheer drudgery resulting from challenging living conditions takes its toll on the capacity of families to function optimally, with potentially serious implications for children’s health.

Environments of poverty with their constellation of health risks also present a challenge for health care systems and institutions, which in many low income countries struggle to cope with basic preventive and palliative care (see for instance Kemble et al 2006). Deepening health risks, disasters and long-term recovery scenarios will increase the burdens placed on these under-resourced systems.

Box 5: Keeping children clean in Banshighat

The informal settlement of Banshighat in Kathmandu, Nepal, lies by a river which swells to flood the community after heavy monsoon rain storms. The settlement is criss-crossed by foul-smelling open drains which run down to the river, carrying wastewater from other parts of the city as well as from this community. Because there is no provision for waste removal, all local garbage is also dumped into these drains. Most people in the community use the riverbank for defecation. But small children are not allowed down by the river, so caregivers throw their excreta into the drains –the simplest way to keep the narrow walkways clean. This means that fecal matter is present in the drains throughout the community. During heavy rains, when the river rises, the drains back up and overflow, and fecal matter and garbage are spread all over the settlement.

Parents are well aware of the health hazard that these conditions present, but their awareness is no match for their children’s drive to play. Even the most vigilant caregivers, who are careful to wash children’s hands before meals and every time they defecate, have trouble protecting children from their contaminated environment. One mother described to a researcher all the measures she took to ensure that her children did not touch the foul water from the drains. While she was speaking, her young son dropped his ball into the drain behind her, jumped in to retrieve it, and continued throwing it back and forth to other children. Another small boy was observed driving his “car” – a small slab of wood – down to the edge of the drain, through the water and out the other side, while his mother washed clothes nearby. The generally dirty conditions present a constant threat to health for small children in Banshighat, and diarrhoea, worm infestations, skin problems and eye infections are a routine part of their lives.

SOURCE: Save the Children Norway (2002), “Banshighat: preparatory research for ECD programming”, unpublished report, Kathmandu,

b) Learning and competence
Climate change is unlikely to mean radical changes to children’s cognitive development, but for some children in some places the added challenges could contribute to a general erosion of both their capacities and their opportunities for learning and growth. As far as capacity is concerned, the early years are the most critical time for brain development, which can be shaped by a range of environmental and social factors that could be affected by climate change.105 But it is not just a matter of capacity. The opportunities available to children are also critical to their competence, and can also be affected directly or indirectly by climate change.

How health is related to learning

Mental growth and development does not just happen to children; it’s a feedback process that requires their active involvement.106 Good health is central; children who are sick or malnourished lack the energy and interest to be active learners.107 They are slower to develop and move around and have more limited contact with their surroundings. This, together with their lower energy levels, can result in less exploration of the environment, and lower levels of the stimulation that promotes cognitive development.108.There is an abundant literature relating lower cognitive performance and capacity to undernutrition. Children who are stunted at two or three years of age have repeatedly been found to demonstrate later cognitive deficits, along with lower school achievement and higher rates of school dropout.109 Early malnourishment has also been found to affect children’s behaviour and social relationships later on.110 It is not just overall malnutrition that affects development, but also the lack of specific nutrients such as iodine, iron or zinc, the availability of which could be affected as critical local foods become more difficult to access for one climatic reason or another. 111

Children’s development is also closely tied to the health and nutritional levels of their mothers during pregnancy. Undernutrition for unborn children has been consistently related to lower cognitive performance later, and to infants that are less active, happy and outgoing.112 Maternal stress and anxiety during pregnancy can also affect the later cognitive development of unborn children. Research in Canada looked at stress in pregnant women associated with their exposure to an ice-storm disaster. The more severe the exposure of the mother had been to this event, the lower their toddler’s cognitive and language abilities were found to be when they were tested at age two. The level of prenatal stress was calculated to account for between 11 percent and 17 percent of the children’s mental functioning and language abilities. Authors suspected that high levels of stress, especially early in pregnancy, had a direct effect on the brain development of the fetus.113
Children’s mental growth can also be affected by intestinal parasites, diarrhoeal disease and malaria, as described above. Infection with parasites, for instance, has been related to lower language ability in children in Nicaragua.114 The number of episodes of diarrhoea in the first two years of life have been related to lower academic performance in children in a Brazilian shanty town several years later.115 And cognitive and neurological impairments have been repeatedly associated with severe cases of malaria.116 An increase in all of these factors can be expected with climate change.

Children’s access to supportive physical and social environments

Children’s development of new skills and capacities takes place within a social and cultural context that is structured to help them acquire the experiences and competencies that they need to live their lives. They learn to think, to speak, to act appropriately through their interactions and activities with other people in a range of settings.117 When this supportive environment breaks down, constructive opportunities for learning may become constrained.

Much of young children’s learning grows out of their drive to play. Play, in this sense, is far from being a frivolity. It is part of children’s development as capable, resourceful problem solvers and social beings. Through physical activity, exploration of their surroundings, experimentation with the things around them, children grow in their understanding of principles and properties, of cause and effect, and their own capacity to make things happen. Through their interaction with other children they learn about rules and social norms and how to get along in their particular world. Through their imitation of the activities of those around them, using objects in culturally sanctioned ways, they master new skills, experiment with social roles and participate in the life of their households and communities. An environment rich in stimulation and the potential for purposeful activity supports opportunities for learning. When children lack easy access to a varied, stimulating world, both their cognitive and social growth can potentially suffer.118
Not all stimulation is positive for learning however. “Environmental chaos,” a summary term that includes high levels of noise and crowding, with many people coming and going and a lack of physical and temporal structure in daily life, has consistently been found to have negative impacts on children’s learning and development.119 This is an accurate description of many post-disaster settings, where children may live for months on end in overcrowded emergency camps. But challenging events on a smaller scale can also disrupt life repeatedly.

The harmful outcomes of environmental chaos are considered to be related to both the distracting effects on children’s attention and the impacts on the quality of interaction between children and caregivers. High noise levels have long been related to memory problems, speech perception and deficits in complex task performance and reading comprehension in children.120 Overcrowding, also, has been related to poor cognitive development and lower motivation, both in India and the USA.121.

Even outside of a chaotic emergency camp setting, however, many caregivers respond to disaster by becoming more fearful and restrictive with their children. In Tamil Nadu, after the tsunami, for instance, even when families were resettled in rebuilt housing, women wanted to be able to watch their young children all the time. They either kept them close by indoors or else refused to use the indoor kitchens that had been provided, setting up makeshift cooking arrangements outside their reconstructed homes so they could watch children closely as they played.122 This kind of parental anxiety limits opportunities, but can also put a damper on play and exploration.
Levels of maternal depression and withdrawal while their children are young have been linked in a number of studies to children’s learning. Studies from South Africa, Barbados and India have all pointed to lower levels of cognitive functioning and higher levels of behavioural problems in young children who have depressed mothers.123 On the other hand, higher levels of maternal responsiveness and stimulation have been found to be a protective factor for the cognitive development of even malnourished children.124
The emphasis here has been on younger children. But even for older children and adolescents, opportunities for purposeful goal directed activities and engagement in the world are primary avenues for the achievement of competence.125 In the course of displacement, or in the disruption of routines and local environments that can accompany even “minor” disasters, these opportunities (however rich or minimal they may in fact be) can become seriously constrained.

Formal supports for learning and development

The benefits of good early childhood programmes for all aspects of development have long been recognized.126. The combination of security and stimulation offered by a good programme, can be an important protective factor in the face of various challenges, providing a source of support for both children and parents.

But these kinds of programmes, along with formal schooling, are frequently interrupted after disasters or extreme weather events. Schools and child care centres may be destroyed or damaged, or may just be shut down for an extended period. Not infrequently, schools are taken over as emergency shelters, and it may be weeks or even months before they are available again. In the city of St Louis in Senegal, for instance, which is prone to frequent flooding, schools take in flood victims, with several; families sharing each classroom, and the school year is effectively reduced to a few months each year.127 Even when their former schools remain open, children may be pulled out because of displacement or because their disaster-affected families lack the resources to pay fees or provide the necessary uniforms. Conditions in emergency shelters or temporary housing may make it harder for children to do homework, also increasing the likelihood of dropout. Especially in areas where school dropout is common, children are much less likely to continue with school after an interruption.

c) Coping with adversity: psychological well being and social support
It’s far simpler to determine the prevalence of diarrhoea or malnutrition after a disaster, or in the face of challenging circumstances, than it is to assess children’s psychological vulnerability or resilience, or the effects for their development as competent social beings. Not only are these things more difficult to measure; they are complex concepts to understand, mediated as they are by many factors.

Levels of vulnerability and resilience depend not only on children’s health and internal strengths, but are also closely tied to household dynamics, to the ways that adults are coping, and to levels of social support. The meanings attached to events are critical. Culture is widely acknowledged to play a significant role in mediating both perceptions and behaviour. The way children understand and experience hardship will depend a great deal on local child rearing practices and expectations, on the experiences they have had in their daily lives, and on local values and beliefs.128 For all these reasons, determining the effects of adversity for children’s well being can be a matter of uncertainty and even contention. But without question, there is a risk that the losses, hardships and uncertainties surrounding stressful events can have high costs for a child and may overwhelm their capacity to cope and thrive.

This section focuses most heavily on the impact of more extreme events, especially the 2004 tsunami, because of the research and documentation that is available. At least in low-income countries, far more attention has been given to the experiences of children in the days and months after extreme events than to the realities in areas affected by more slow moving change. Experiences in the wake of a major disaster may be more fast breaking and often more extreme, and the sudden and shocking accumulation of hardship can in itself be a risk. But families and children can also face considerable stress and upheaval in the context of smaller disasters or more slow moving changes – the loss of possessions and livelihoods, the erosion of social networks, the tension and strains within households, high levels of environmental chaos can all accompany even more “minor” crises.
Factors influencing children’s capacity to cope

There is little hard evidence that children as a group are psychologically more severely affected than adults by the difficulties that accompany extreme events or challenging conditions. Some may in fact respond with more flexibility and resilience than their elders.129 Age is just one of many factors that appear to mediate experiences of adversity. But children of different ages, because of their level of understanding and especially their lack of social power within family and community, may be particularly affected. It is not just their own responses that are important either. The way other family and community members cope with difficult events may have important ramifications for children’s security and well being, and for their own capacity to manage a stressful situation.

In their discussion of children’s resilience in the context of extreme events, Boyden and Mann review literature pointing to a number of factors that may influence children’s capacity to cope well.130 There is some evidence that younger children may be more severely affected by stressful events than older children. Their more limited experience and understanding may complicate their perception of events, leaving them in greater need of support. Girls have also been frequently noted to have a more difficult time coping than boys. Despite indications that they are biologically stronger, their lower status within families and societies may leave them less emotionally resilient. Temperament, motivation and personal experience can also play a role. These intrinsic factors, however, are all mediated by social expectations and supports. Children who have experienced success and approval in their lives are more likely to adapt well and respond with confidence than those who have suffered rejection and failure. Poverty and social status can play an important role in this regard. For older children, the effects for their social world and peer relationships play a big part. Also important, in the face of adversity, is the continued opportunity to be able exercise an active and purposeful role in the world. According to Chawla and Heft, “Just as the biological well-being of the individual rests on adequate functioning of various organ systems, the psychological well-being of the individual rests, to some extent, on efficacious functioning in domains of reciprocal individual-environment processes.” 131

Trauma in children – a contentious area

It is often assumed that children who have experienced a disaster will be psychologically damaged or traumatized. There is considerable research assessing the prevalence and severity of children’s distress after extreme events, most of it framed in terms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).132 Studies in various settings describe high rates of PTSD among children in the months following a disaster, generally related to the intensity of the event and the degree of the exposure. 133

This approach has been criticized by many as a western construct with questionable validity for other cultural realities.134 A diagnosis of PTSD may fail to include symptoms of distress that are relevant within a particular culture, or, on the other hand, may not be strongly associated with children’s actual capacity to function and cope.135 After an Orissa cyclone, for instance, parents and teachers reported mental health concerns in only a small percentage of the children diagnosed with PTSD, and in almost as many who were not diagnosed with PTSD.136 It is difficult to know, however, whether this says more about the inadequacy of the PTSD criteria in a non-western setting, or about the capacity of adults to identify distress in children. There is evidence that children’s experience and understanding of adversity may not match all that well with adults’ perceptions of children’s experience.137

As Engle and colleagues point out, the expectation of negative outcomes in these situations can unwittingly become part of the problem.138 Much of what is defined as symptomatic of pathology (such as bedwetting or regression to younger behaviour) may also be construed as a normal reaction to abnormal conditions.

Disagreements in this area extend to treatment. Some professionals see western-style counseling and talk therapy as appropriate for children experiencing distress; others feel these interventions may do more harm than good by ignoring the social meanings given to events in a particular locality, and even violating cultural norms about the discussion of painful events.139 The emphasis on individual pain may also isolate children (or adults) from the reality of broader social distress and undermine family and community cohesion.140
Without question, the shock of a sudden disaster can be extreme for both children and adults, resulting in distress for all age groups. Reports of nightmares, sleeplessness, fear of being alone, trouble with concentration and severe anxiety must be taken seriously. But frequently it is the aftermath of traumatic events and the deprivations and humiliations of a slow recovery process that children and families themselves report as being the most stressful and debilitating.141 These kinds of longer term hardships are often overlooked when the primary focus is on trauma. The concept of trauma may be less relevant in situations where there is continued and extended exposure to hardship.

Separation from family

There can be numerous assaults on children’s resilience in the aftermath of extreme events. Especially in low income countries, some children may end up orphaned or separated from family. These may be accidental separations, or they may result from a family’s inability to cope. A priority on the part of many organizations after a disaster is focusing on reunification with family as the optimal response, and otherwise, or in the meantime, encouraging fostering arrangements. Institutional care is generally considered to be the worst alternative.142 This is another area subject to debate. Extended family or other community members, for instance, may provide a secure alternative, but too often even these bonds are frayed to the breaking point, and extra children can become a target for mistreatment. Children who are being fostered, especially in unrelated families, are at particular risk of exploitation and abuse, and in some cases may have been taken in only for the subsidies they bring with them, or for the labour they can provide. 143

Reunification may also be difficult to arrange. In some spontaneous fostering arrangements, there may be suspicion of those asking questions about children; children may also be unwilling to be taken away. Reunification with a family that has abandoned a child may not always be the best solution for that child, and if he or she has developed a bond with a foster family, there is also the risk of another upheaval if reunification takes place after an extended time.144 In some cases, institutional care, undesirable at it may be in most situations, could offer children the best chance of remaining with siblings or friends who represent an important source of stability and security. The rights-based principle of acting in the child’s best interests may be sorely tested here, as different parties see different solutions as being best for children. Of great importance is the continued monitoring of any solutions, to ensure that children are not in untenable situations.145
Although separation from family is generally viewed as inherently traumatic for children, even this cannot be assumed. The priority given to reunification may ignore the often fluid domestic arrangements of many cultural communities, in which exclusive parental care may be quite rare. There is evidence in many situations that the restoration of a sense of security and belonging for children may have as much to do with the re-establishment of daily life patterns and routines as with reunification with their families.146 On the other hand, there is also testimony from children in various settings who feel that separation from their families is their deepest fear.147

Even lesser disasters can result in temporary separations. In Kathmandu, Nepal, for instance, flooding occurs regularly during the monsoon in urban slums along the river banks, and many families are forced to withdraw to higher ground and to live under plastic sheets for the duration. Many mothers speak of sending their youngest children away to their home villages during this time of year.148

Family stress and tensions

Even when family remains intact, the challenge of picking up the pieces may be overwhelming. Displacement, the outcome of both small and large disasters for hundreds of thousands of families a year, can be profoundly disturbing for families. Save the Children cites a UN estimate that by 2010, there will be 50 million such environmentally displaced people worldwide.149 The number goes up when we take into account those that are displaced by war and violence – which may in some cases result from conflict over increasingly scarce resources.

Although children can be surprisingly resilient, displacement can also be deeply troubling, especially when the adults in their lives are anxious, depressed and feeling a loss of control over their lives. The immediate loss of life and property can be compounded by the hardships that follow. Basic requirements may be hard to come by, livelihoods may have disappeared. Relief may be inequitably distributed. A disaster can mean the abrupt collapse of community life and social supports. Displacement for children and their families, even outside the context of emergency camps, can mean isolation, humiliation, depression and anxiety.150 Also at issue are the disruptions to the temporal structure of life. Daily routines and patterns of activity are an important component of stability, orientation and identity for children and adults. The disruption of play, school, daily chores, livelihoods and other familiar activities can leave both children and adults aimless, lost and more vulnerable to distress.

Resilience for children in situations of adversity has repeatedly been related in part to the presence of at least one actively supportive adult in their lives.151 Even this can be difficult to ensure when adults themselves are withdrawn, apathetic and depressed, or angry and frustrated. Household dynamics can be seriously affected by the stresses associated with disasters, and increased levels of irritability, withdrawal and family conflict are not unusual.152

But high levels of stress are not unique to those who survive major disasters. The fear and worry associated with recurring threats and worsening conditions can also be severe. There is increasing evidence globally of the high burden of mental health problems, with women and the poor in low income countries being at highest risk.153 This evidence is not specifically related to climate change, but many of the risk factors for such common mental problems as anxiety, depression, insomnia and irritability are likely to be exacerbated by some of the effects of climate change. There is growing evidence, for instance, both from high and low income countries, of significant associations for women between food insecurity and anxiety and depression.154 More generally, these common mental health problems are considered to be related to unpredictability, uncertainty and general insecurity,155 factors which are undoubtedly intensified by many of the effects of climate change. Women also speak of the punishing workloads they face in the context of poverty and adversity, and the resulting fatigue, anxiety and “problems of the mind” that characterize their days. They describe headaches, unhappiness, disturbed sleep patterns and just “thinking too much” as undermining their capacity to cope adequately with their lives and their children.156

High levels of adult stress can have serious implications for children, with effects for development on all fronts. The impact of maternal stress and depression for children’s cognitive development was noted above. Maternal depression has also been linked to higher levels of malnutrition in children.157 Neglect and abuse can also become an issue. Increased rates of child abuse have long been associated with factors that generally become more prevalent after a disaster or household upheaval – such as maternal depression, poverty, loss of property or a breakdown in social support. In order to investigate the impact of a disaster on rates of child maltreatment, a study in the USA looked at rates of inflicted traumatic brain injury in children under two in the six months following Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Drawing on records from nine pediatric hospitals, the research found that in areas severely affected by the storm, rates of traumatic brain injury inflicted on small children increased over five-fold in the six months following the hurricane, when compared to the previous six months.158

Children’s behaviour after disasters or in adversity could well contribute to abusive responses from parents. Where children exhibit high anxiety and such behaviours as bed wetting, nightmares, aggressiveness or clinging behaviour, this may add to the stresses of parents attempting to deal with disaster-related problems.159 Common mental disorders in parents have been related to behavioural problems in their children,160 and so a feedback cycle can be established especially under stressful situations. A child’s temperament can also affect the kinds of responses they elicit from others, and easy going children may be less likely to be treated with impatience and irritation. However, it should be noted that the findings with regard to abuse are not consistent. Research among survivors of three different natural disasters in the USA, for instance, found significantly elevated rates of reported child abuse in two cases, but not in the third.161 Even within one country, it is difficult to make generalizations.
The breakdown of social norms and routines in the aftermath of disaster

Disasters and their aftermath have been noted in many contexts to lead to social breakdown, with a frequent erosion of the social controls that normally regulate behaviour within communities.162 Life in emergency shelters and transitional housing camps is overwhelming for many people – not only overcrowded and uncomfortable, but fraught with frustration, uncertainty and even danger (see Box 5).

The lack of provision for privacy, along with the collapse of regular routines and activities, can lead to many problems. Sexual violence is commonly reported. There have been numerous reports of children and women enduring abuse of various kinds. Adolescent girls in particular complain of the lack of privacy around sleep, washing and dressing, and of the sexual harassment they face.163 In Sri Lanka after the tsunami, according to local field workers on the ground, as well as women and children living in emergency shelters, issues around privacy were responsible for most of the social problems that were experienced: “There were repeated references to the difficulties associated with many families living together in one open space, with no privacy for dressing or bathing – or even for families crowded together in a tent. Many were reluctant to acknowledge the extent of the problems, and said that given the situation, people had managed well. But staff from both Save [the Children] and partner organizations, along with some of the more vocal women, made it clear that the situation resulted in many abuses.”164

There have also been reports of abuse of children’s trust by staff members themselves. Many organizations, scaling up rapidly in response to disaster, must hire many new staff, but have little time for the kind of training and orientation they might usually consider essential to ensure that people are not using their positions inappropriately.165 Staff members, often local people, may themselves be suffering from the impact of the event.

Box 6: Conditions in emergency barracks in Aceh, Indonesia 10 months after the 2004 tsunami
The barracks consist of long buildings made up of rooms of about 20 square meters, each of which houses at least 6 people, sometimes from more than one family if the family consists of fewer than 6 people. Toilet blocks containing pit latrines are located close to the barracks, and there are central water tanks (in this site, 2 tanks for 120 families.). Because the barracks were built as a temporary measure, materials are flimsy and the buildings are already starting to deteriorate.
Drainage is very bad; stagnant pools of water, often slimy and garbage filled, are everywhere.

Toilets are filthy and the risk of faecal contamination is high. People have to carry water from the water tanks in order to wash their hands and the toilets after using them. Small children defecate in the open, especially in drainage ditches where they say they also play, because their mothers do not have the time or energy to go back and forth all day to the water tanks. Children expressed embarrassment at the filthy conditions. People wash at the water tanks, but there are no provisions for privacy.

People are cooking indoors with no arrangements for venting. In order to keep the mosquitoes out, doors and windows are kept closed and there is little air flow.

The potential for injury is high. Families are crowded into small rooms, cooking where they are living, exposing small children to the risk of burns. There are sharp pieces of debris on the ground, walkways are slippery and pools of water hide potential hazards. Children are afraid of walking to latrines alone when it is dark for these among other reasons (the potential for harassment is also there.). People are clearly making superhuman efforts to protect small children from the challenging conditions, but keeping them indoors all day is not ideal for supporting their development in other areas. The safe play area is open only for a couple of hours a day.
Overcrowding contributes to tensions between households (e.g. noisy children), and within households. Conflicting demands on limited space raises the stress level for everyone (e.g. no quiet place to pray, no place to do homework, no place to dress).
Social norms and practices are being undermined by these living conditions. People have to bathe in public, adolescent girls cannot undress out of sight of other family members or guests, there is discomfort about children sleeping in the same room as adults, and embarrassment around women breastfeeding and washing in public. These challenges to accepted norms result in a general lowering of standards of behaviour which feels especially threatening to the girls.
Conditions in these barracks were considered by staff to be typical of most emergency shelters in the area, although they say people still living in tents are undoubtedly in an even worse situation.

The general sense of demoralization is worsened by the fact that people are in the dark about their future – they don’t know when they are leaving this place. Adults seem to lack the energy to take any initiative; they are getting used to NGOs taking care of everything. (For instance, one organization comes in every week to pick up garbage around the camp). The post-disaster culture of complaint and dependence is clearly a major problem.

Source: Notes from a field visit in Aceh, November 2005

Evans and Saegert argue that the synergistic and cumulative effects of such physical and social stressors should not be underestimated. Based on research with low income families in the USA, they found that the effects of density for young children were amplified by family turmoil and by the range of stressors typically experienced by those living in urban poverty, leading to substantially greater developmental dysfunction than was found in prior studies.166 As the numbers of displaced people grow, these dysfunctional environments are likely to become the setting within which more and more children spend their early years.

Children’s resilience

Despite this litany of challenges, it is, again, misleading to think of children simply as victims, and not to appreciate the level of emotional resilience and competency that they can actually bring to a situation. Although there are numerous accounts of disasters resulting in trauma for children, as described above, there are also accounts of their hardiness and resourcefulness in the face of both extreme events and everyday difficulty.167 Children may in fact be more flexible than adults in their capacity to adapt to extreme situations. It is easy to forget that many children function competently in adult roles, running households, caring for younger children, handling jobs, negotiating a variety of complex realities. The fact that these situations may be less than ideal does not diminish the respect children deserve for their capacity to handle them.

Children’s capacity to cope well in difficult situations has been related to their own active engagement. 168 A review of relevant literature indicates, in fact, that activities involving active problem solving have been found to be more beneficial than anything else in coping with recovery after a disaster.169 Opportunities to exercise and develop their competence, and to have their efforts responded to with approval, can build confidence in children and a sense of identity and effectiveness that can go a long way towards relieving distress. There are many real-life opportunities for problem solving and improvement of the surroundings in both the post-disaster context (see Box 6), and in the more “every day” context of urban poverty.170 It should never be assumed that these are not appropriate for children. Repeated experience demonstrates how capable children are of looking critically at local problems and coming up with creative solutions, and how much pleasure they can take in this.171 Building on this potential in children will be discussed further in the sections on adaptation.

Box 7: Activities engaged in by children in Indonesia after the tsunami
Roadway: children cleared trees and branches from streets and suggested road reconstruction to replace the damaged ones.

Camp perimeters: children cut down kuda-kuda (barricade trees) to make fences to prevent cattle from coming inside, planted new trees, and they put gravel on the ground so it would not get muddy.

Shelters: once a week children work together to clean the terrace, toilets, and bathrooms; they help build gates and help advocate for continuous electricity.

Kitchens: children help clean the tables, floors, cooking utensils and water containers.

Soccer and volleyball fields: children cleared the tsunami rubble, measured the size of the field, cut down palm trees to make poles for goal posts and put up the net.

Mosques: children cleared the rubble thrown up by the tsunami.

Plan’s kindergarten/Early Childhood Care and Development Centre: children assisted in building schools. Some of the children teach younger children from Monday to Saturday, clean and tidy up the balee.

Children lead activities, such as counselling, child’s rights, reproductive health and drugs awareness.

Children cheer up their parents so that they won’t be too depressed.

Children work as volunteers/teachers who teach their younger friends.

Children lead prayer groups.

Source: Plan International (2005) Children and the Tsunami: Engaging with children in disaster response, recovery and risk reduction, learning from children’s participation in the tsunami response, Bangkok: Plan International, p 8

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