Human Settlements Discussion Paper – Climate Change 2

d) Household coping strategies in difficult times


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d) Household coping strategies in difficult times
A major factor in the challenges faced by children in the context of climate change is their families’ capacity to cope and adjust to increasing hardship. In the face of high magnitude disaster, the shock may be extreme. However, it should not be assumed that these extreme events are unique in creating havoc within households and deepening the level of poverty. “Smaller” disasters, and even deteriorating living conditions, can also result in serious pressures on households – whether through short term displacement, loss of work, reductions in food security, rising prices for basics, or just the time and energy drain associated with more challenging surroundings and daily routines. Higher rates of illness for children, for instance, can add considerably to the load that households carry, depleting cash reserves and adding to time burdens.As Diagne describes the situation in St. Louis, Senegal, “For those who live in flood-prone districts, each flood increases their poverty, depleting their incomes and meagre asset bases.”172 The report from participants in a workshop linking disasters and urban development in Africa points out that in the continuum between large scale disasters and everyday hazards, it is the smaller scale but more frequent events that cumulatively take the greatest toll on life, livelihoods and household well being.173

Nor do these added pressures present simple choices. Households in two flood-prone squatter settlements in Dhaka, for instance, were asked to consider the incentives that would encourage them to relocate to safer locations. Despite the extent and difficulty of their experience coping with floods, many residents felt that relocation was simply not feasible without considerable incentives – including free land, non-repayable grants and long term employment opportunities.174

When the family system faces more pressure than it can easily adapt to, this can have critical consequences for children, with implications for all aspects of development. The stability of the household may be seen as far more important than the welfare of an individual child. This can find expression, for instance, in the allocation of food and other resources. Research from Guadalajara, Mexico, looking at household level adjustments during a period of crisis, noted, for instance the subordinate status of women and children:

The distribution of food is, perhaps, one of the clearest examples of household dynamics vis-à-vis power relations. Since food is distributed according to the status of household members, the most prestigious items (such as meat and poultry) are devoted to men, especially working age men, while women and children have soups, beans and tortillas, and, if they are lucky, any left-over meat.175
The Bristol study of child poverty confirms the fact that the resources of a given household are not necessarily a reliable indicator of the well being of children within that household. Many households make great sacrifices on behalf of their children; but in others, few of the benefits of what is earned or produced actually trickle down to reach children. Children can qualify as being in absolute poverty even in a household that does not.176

When times are hard, children can become an asset that is drawn on to maintain the stability of the household.177 Rather than spending money on a child’s education, for instance, that child may be pulled out of school in order to work or take care of younger siblings; and this is more often the case for girls than for boys. Certain children may be considered more “expendable” than others.178 Many of Bombay’s young prostitutes, for instance, are girls from very poor rural villages in Nepal, where increasingly inadequate crop yields, among other factors, lead families to sacrifice one child in order that others may survive.179 Multi-dimensional definitions of poverty encourage broad thinking about the assets and risks that actually affect a family’s capacity to cope and move ahead in the world. However, these definitions would be still more comprehensive if they took into account the degree to which families are drawing on their children as an asset, or investing in them to ensure their optimal development.

The status of the mother (or other primary caregiver) within a household may be critical to children’s well being. In extended families, women with lower status may have less capacity to minimize the risks their children face. The combination of economic problems, social isolation and psychological stress in a mother can result in significant risks for her children. Community level supports are important here. Mothers who are involved in mutually supportive relationships through community institutions have been found to be less likely to have malnourished children, for instance, than those who are isolated within a family.180 Although children have long been considered to be at higher risk in poor households headed by single mothers, there is also evidence that the more child-centred priorities of mothers may in fact lead to better outcomes for children in these households.181 Nonetheless, in difficult circumstances, the priority given by women to their children’s needs can result in levels of fatigue and stress that take a serious toll. Women in a Ghana town , for instance, spoke of the degree of their chronic anxiety, tiredness and physical aches and pains: “What will the children eat? What will they wear? One of them is sick, she has to go to the hospital, where do I get the money?... So every time you are thinking. When it's night and I lie down I won't sleep.” 182

It is important also to consider those families that have been pushed by changing conditions in rural areas to migrate to cities. Droughts and food shortages associated with climate change, for instance, can create a situation where migration becomes the only practical alternative. These families may be especially ill-equipped to cope with urban living, lacking the education, skills, knowledge and social networks they need to cope with their new environment.183 Even where only some household members migrate, the effects for families and children may be significant.184 In many cases it may be children and young people themselves who are sent to become a life line for the rest of the household. Some research poses this as a route to exploitation of various kinds for numerous children., while in other cases (more often where children themselves provide their perspective) it is viewed as an opportunity. 185

e) The need for more information
Although it’s possible to make an estimation of the potential impact of climate change for urban children, there are considerable gaps in our knowledge. We need far more extensive documentation of the risks actually faced by children and young people in particular contexts, and the factors that are most likely to support their resilience in different situations.
Some areas call for attention more urgently than others. There is a fairly good understanding, for instance, of the probable health effects for young children of various aspects of climate change, although far more remains to be learned within specific situations. But we know very little about how household survival strategies in the face of climate change are actually affecting young children, or what the factors are that encourage or permit adults to make their children’s needs a priority. Our knowledge of the effects of climate change on the mental health and resilience of caretakers (and the adult world generally) is also very limited, along with the supports that might realistically be brought to bear. Generally speaking, we have more information on the outcomes of high magnitude disasters than on the slower onset problems or gradually eroding conditions.

We also know very little about the impacts of changing conditions for older children and adolescents. How are young people coping with the upheaval of displacement and the loss of their social networks? How do the difficulties associated with climate change affect their chances of getting an education, and how many children are being pushed prematurely into work? For those who are a bit older, underemployment and unemployment are critical problems in much of the world. How do disasters, or just changing conditions, affect their chances of entering employment? How many young people are migrating from rural to urban areas because of droughts and increased difficulty with survival in rural areas?  How many are having to invent new ways of surviving in the context of changing conditions? Without a better understanding of how young people are actually experiencing these kinds of realities, many of the costs of climate change remain impossible to assess, along with the adaptations that can best reduce the risks and enhance vulnerability. Fortunately young people themselves can be articulate informants, contributing to a better understanding of these issues.

This limited list of the gaps in our knowledge does not include a very basic concern – the lack of local information bases that are essential for effective planning and adaptation. These, too, need to be developed with close attention to the implications for children, but this will be discussed in more detail below..
Existing knowledge in a range of areas, limited though it may be, has provided a basis for discussing the likely impacts of climate change for children. The same process applies in considering the practical adaptations that are most likely to reduce the risks for children and to build their resilience in the face of climate change – as well as the capacity of families, communities and children themselves to contribute to these responses.
Where children are concerned, as with the urban poor more generally, it becomes clear that adaptation and risk reduction involve primarily more effective local development measures. Incorporating a focus on children may mean changing the threshold at which an event or situation is considered potentially “disastrous” or at which adaptation is considered necessary. It will also mean broadening the scope of adaptation to include issues that are not always considered to be central – but which in fact have benefits beyond those for children


a) Some basic guidelines for adaptation actors

In the effort to reduce vulnerability and enhance resilience in the face of various hazards and risks, and in the course of both preparedness and responses, how can the multiplicity of concerns for children of different ages be adequately represented without completely overwhelming any agenda? Although development at the local level is paramount, there are many actors that can have an impact at this level – community groups and local authorities, disaster reduction specialists, NGOs, national governments, international agencies and others. While their roles are different, along with the kind of impact they can have on children’s lives, there are a few basic guidelines that pertain to all of them with regard to adaptation as it affects children.

  • Addressing the basic concerns for children within all aspects of adaptation presupposes that their requirements are adequately understood. Unless various actors understand the implications of their decisions and actions for children and young people of various ages, the steps they take to respond to the crises of climate change are likely to be mistargeted in some important ways.

  • Children’s and young people’s experience of these implications may differ from the assumptions made by adults on their behalf. This does not mean that children (or their caregivers) and young people need to be present at every level and in every forum. It does mean that the information on which decisions are based be information that can be trusted to represent children’s experience.

  • Incorporating a focus on children may mean changing the threshold at which an event or situation is considered potentially “disastrous” or at which adaptation is considered necessary. It will also mean broadening the scope of adaptation to include issues that are not always considered to be central – but which in fact have benefits beyond those for children.

  • Children’s requirements cannot be an afterthought or an add-on. To be effectively addressed, they need to be integrated into policy, planning and implementation from the start. Just as with gender, a consideration of age needs to be a routine feature of decision making on every front, not a separate set of activities. The add-on approach results in superficial band-aid solutions.

Within each aspect of planning for adaptation, whether in protection, preparedness, response or recovery, four basic concerns can guide responses to children, and these can be considered in the appropriate detail at each level of action, Taking these guidelines into account, in other words, will mean something different to a donor agency and to a local disaster-preparedness committee.

  • Ensuring children’s optimal health and nutrition:

This is not only for the obvious and immediate benefits, but because of the effects in enhancing their resilience generally and supporting their long term development on every front. For example, a period of nutritional deprivation short-lived by adult standards may have more critical implications for children. When disaster strikes, both the urgency of the response and its effectiveness will be affected by children’s pre-existing level of health. A few examples: for donors this may mean acknowledging that food aid programs in response to a crisis are relatively ineffective compared to long term programs. When children’s health is already compromised by illness and malnutrition, they are more likely to sustain long term damage to their development in the wake of a crisis, even with emergency food programs. For local government, it may be an additional reason for tackling environmental sanitation problems.

  • Strengthening families’ capacity to cope:

All adaptive measures geared at the urban poor should ideally enhance their capacity to come through periods of shock without succumbing to major household catastrophe. But “coping” in this context may take on broader meaning where children are concerned, and will include the capacity of households to manage hardship without compromising the well being of their children. A few examples: an NGO might build a child-impact assessment into its micro-credit activities, ensuring that loan repayments not compromise children’s nutrition; a health care system might allocate more of its resources to mental health care for caregivers.

  • Maintaining, restoring, enhancing the potential for children’s daily routines and activities: Children need supportive functional adults in their lives, but they also rely on their daily routines and activities as a context for stability and optimal development. Other functions, more critical to survival, will inevitably be prioritized (food, health, livelihoods), but in the course of addressing these things, it is important that children’s spaces, activities and networks not be compromised – they should be identified, maintained, restored wherever possible. A few examples: in paving and upgrading local streets to prevent them washing away during increasingly common floods, speed bumps could be included to ensure that children are not endangered by faster traffic; in an emergency camp, a quiet space can be made available where children can do homework away from the noise and chaos of the camp.

  • Respecting children’s capacities; allowing them the chance for active involvement:

The chance to solve problems, contribute, take action, has been identified as a potent protective force for children in situations of adversity. But the contribution of children and young people is also a potential community asset that is too seldom tapped in the process of development and adaptation. A few examples: local government disaster reduction teams might recognize children’s extensive knowledge of their own neighborhoods, and draw on this in the process of local risk assessment and monitoring; NGOs rebuilding after disaster could involve children along with adults in critiquing and modifying stock plans for relocated housing, since they will point to many concerns that adults will overlook.

Adding these concerns to the already long list of urgent priorities for adaptation may appear to be unrealistic. Fortunately, there is considerable overlap between the measures needed to protect and support children, and those that are essential for reducing and responding to risk more generally. The most useful measures to protect children’s health, for instance, also happen to be fundamental in reducing risks from potential disasters. Adequate provision for waste removal and drainage inhibits the potential for fecal contamination in the event of heavy downpours and lessens the likelihood of some vector-borne diseases – but also protects communities from the chronic flooding that can result from insufficient drainage or garbage-blocked drains. Making safe appropriate land available for housing for low-income groups may diminish the risks associated with flooding or landslides which most seriously threaten children, but will also encourage greater investment in homes and neighbourhoods, further minimizing the likelihood of storm-related damage.186

Risk reduction measures can even have unexpected benefits for children. In Bangladesh, for instance, flood control embankment projects to protect people in low lying areas and to stabilize river banks turned out to have highly significant effects for child mortality rates, which were 29 percent higher outside these areas. Differences were apparent especially for infectious disease, drowning and malnutrition. Improvements in agriculture and fishery production; easier access by land to health centres and a lower risk of drowning were all reasons in themselves to undertake flood control, and involved no additional investment.187
The following sections will consider how attention to children might be addressed in the course of four different aspects of adaptation:

  • Protection, or the reduction of longer term risks and hazards

  • Preparation for disaster

  • Immediate responses in the aftermath of extreme events

  • Longer term rebuilding – with an eye to the reduction of future risks

b) Protection: reducing the longer term risks with children in mind

Most disasters should be seen as failures of development, because they should have been anticipated and protective measures taken – there is no disaster in the absence of vulnerable populations 188 The huge backlog in provision for protective infrastructure in most low-income urban settlements and neighbourhoods creates highly vulnerable populations, increasing not only the risk of disaster in the wake of an extreme event, but also the “every day” threats to the health, survival and coping strategies of the poor (such as diarrhoea, malaria, difficulties in transportation and so on) that can be exacerbated by more gradual changes in weather. Many international agencies support disaster response – but have long refused to support the kinds of pro-poor infrastructure and service provision in urban areas that prevents disasters or greatly reduces their impacts. For instance, in Guyana it has been difficult to arrange international finance for the maintenance of sea walls or for for incremental improvements. But once the sea walls are breached, funding is made available.189 The advantages of prevention – as opposed to action after the fact – applies not only to infrastructure and material assets, but to the full range of efforts as they affect children and their families.

Preparing adequately for change in many low income communities may mean upgrading housing and infrastructure, or even mean resettling people in less hazardous areas. Because many of the implications for children are similar, whether their homes and communities are upgraded or rebuilt in anticipation of weather events, or after the fact of a disaster, these issues will be discussed together in the section on rebuilding.
Supporting children’s resilience through preventive attention to health and nutrition

The advantages of preventive health measures are well established, but take on additional significance in the context of climate change. Investing in children’s health is as compelling a preventive strategy as investing in infrastructure. Children who are healthier and better nourished will be far better able to withstand a crisis.

In Bangladesh after the 1998 floods, a study looking at children’s nutritional status found that aid programmes that intervened after the crisis were relatively ineffective when compared to long term programmes that had been in place beforehand. When children’s health is already compromised by illness and malnutrition, they are far more likely to sustain long term damage to their development in the wake of a crisis, even with emergency food programmes.190 A Mozambique study also pointed to the significant difference that more extended food aid can make in the face of drought and famine: in drought ravaged Tete province, nutritional support programmes had for four years aimed to reduce mortality and malnutrition in the most severely affected districts through an array of supplementary nutrition programmes. The under-five mortality rate, as a result of these programmes, dropped to 41 percent below the national average, even in the context of the severe drought.191

Ensuring that children’s health is adequately supported before rather than after the upset of smaller or larger disasters means investments not only in health services and nutrition, but critically in the provision for infrastructure supporting environmental health, given the huge contribution of unsanitary conditions to children’s endemic illnesses. The synergies between environmental health measures and disaster preparedness and prevention were discussed above, and provide, in effect, one more compelling reason for attention to the adequate provision of basic infrastructure. A focus on children’s needs, however, may change the standards for such provision, ensuring that they address the realities and capacities of children and their caregivers.192

In unsanitary environments, a common public health response is to focus on hygiene awareness. But measures that depend too heavily on the time and efforts of caregivers, especially in the absence of the infrastructure needed to support these efforts, are minimally effective. Washing children’s hands, boiling water, preventing contamination of food and of cooking utensils, keeping floors and surfaces clean, ensuring the adequate disposal of children’s feces, may all individually appear to be simple and feasible tasks. But when taken together and put into context, they may constitute a heavy burden that leaves caregivers too tired to cope. A number of studies have shown how difficult such information is to apply in unsanitary environments without unreasonable investments of time and attention 193 (see also Box 4). Efforts to improve hygiene through education has been found to have little effect on changing behaviour in the absence of supportive provision. Water piped to houses and proper latrines are clearly the best preventive measures for illnesses related to sanitary conditions.

A reliance on measures that cost money that families can’t easily spare also risk having poor results . As can be seen from the Uganda case study described in Box 3, even when treated mosquito nets are relatively inexpensive, they may be too costly to be readily affordable, and people will make do with untreated nets. There has been an assumption that if these kinds of supports are given free of cost, they will not be properly valued and used. Experience has proven otherwise: a mass free distribution of mosquito nets in Kenya was recently reported to have increased the number of children sleeping under treated nets from 5 to 52 percent, and to have cut child deaths from malaria in half in high-risk areas.194 The Uganda case study also made it clear that most caregivers rely on the least expensive healthcare options, at least until they prove to be ineffective.195 As long as the recommended health responses remain the more expensive options, it is unreasonable to expect that people in poverty will make use of them.

The most effective health measures are those that pay close attention to local realities. Injury prevention measures, for example, cannot be generalized from place to place. The causes of injury are likely to be very specific to given area, and must be identified through careful local surveys. The solutions in one informal settlement may be very different from those in another nearby. 196 The conscious identification of risks to safety at a community level can help address the very prevalent notion of injury as “accident” – an event, in other words, that is unfortunate but unavoidable, and not responsive to prevention strategies.197 This rule of thumb has clear relevance for conditions surrounding both extreme events and more gradual change.

The relative costs of preventive as opposed to reactive responses to children’s health and nutrition may be considered unnecessarily high in the context of events that may or may not happen. But any calculation that takes into account the long term implications and indirect costs for children, in addition to the time and money costs of illness for households, would almost surely challenge this as a short sighted view.
Strengthening families’ capacity to cope as part of risk reduction

A number of measures have been recognized as effective in strengthening the capacity of households to prepare for and adapt constructively to the various crises and shocks related to climate change – including the availability of relevant information, a greater capacity to influence local governments, and various financial systems that increase the incentive and capacity to manage risk – such as insurance schemes, revolving loan funds, micro-credit and community-managed savings schemes, and credits for construction materials.198

A perspective that takes children into account would ensure that such measures not have the unintended effect of putting children at risk (through, for instance, cutting back on food expenditures or school fees in order to invest in risk reduction measures.) As in the case of poverty more generally, improved status at the household level does not necessarily ensure (and may even be at the cost of) the well being of children.199 It is important that child-impact assessments and built in safety nets be routine components of efforts to enhance household stability. This could be a productive area for closer collaboration between agencies and practitioners that work with children and the community, NGO and government groups that work to strengthen household and community strategies.

Creating adequate local information bases for risk reduction is an essential component of protection, and there are numerous precedents for community-managed enumerations and surveys.200 This, at the same time, can be instrumental in supporting stronger networks of solidarity among households. They should clearly be undertaken, however, with a clear recognition of the particular risks for children and their implications.
Strengthening family coping strategies would ideally include enhancing social capital and recognizing and responding to the costs of fear, anxiety, depression. These are important measures not only in terms of the resilience of a household, but, indirectly, as components of children’s well being and potential security in taxing situations. Again, there are marked synergies between preparations to avoid the risk of material losses and the measures that enhance community solidarity and mental resilience. Mental health problems, as noted above, are strongly correlated with insecurity and unpredictability. When people feel reasonably well prepared for various eventualities, this sense of control in itself is likely to enhance their capacity to cope well. This is not to suggest that there is no need for attention to mental health services – but rather to point to the important role that better overall protection and preparedness can play in this regard.

Maintaining and improving opportunities for children’s activities and routines

Some of the measures taken to reduce hazards and risks in low income communities may have the unintended consequence of increasing risks for children, or limiting their opportunities for optimal development. Care must be taken to ensure that improvements take place with children’s daily activities and routines in mind. For instance, replacing dirt tracks and alleys with adequately drained all-weather roads may help to minimize flood damage and to ensure accessibility. But improved roads are also likely to increase the speed with which traffic moves through a community, and may present a safety hazard for children walking to school or running errands. Speed bumps and sidewalks can help to ensure that the improvements work for everyone. In many cases, roadways are also the only space within a densely settled community where children can play. As long as traffic is minimal and slow moving, this is not a problem. But improved roads may eliminate a community’s relatively safe play space, and alternatives must be found.

A related factor is the tendency of households and communities to accommodate gradually to increasingly difficult conditions, and to begin to see as normal what is, in fact, far from an acceptable state of affairs.201 Where resources are limited and few alternatives exist for external support, this kind of accommodation is a necessary survival strategy. But this state of mind can also entail a failure to acknowledge all the ways in which children’s health and optimal development are being undermined. Here again is a role for child focused organizations and agencies, to maintain a focus on the ways children may begin to be affected in the course of routine adaptation strategies. When poor drainage in a repeatedly flooded neighbourhood, for instance, exposes children to the risk of water-borne illness, accommodating to this risk by keeping children indoors is not, from a long term perspective, an adequate adaptation. In the same way, when school grounds are repeatedly flooded, closing the school for more and more days in the year is not, over the long term, a reasonable response.
Protecting health, survival and livelihoods must clearly take precedence. But keeping in mind the significance of children’s daily activities and opportunities can mean giving greater priority to responses that might otherwise be seen as having minor importance, but that in fact affect the quality of life for all (such as planting shade trees in areas increasingly affected by heat waves, for instance, or ensuring that playing fields and other areas where children play are adequately drained.) A sharper focus on children’s long term well being can add to the pressure for adequate provision and adaptation within a neighbourhood.

Respecting children’s capacity for active involvement

Reducing long term risks in any community involves a fine grained assessment of the local environment and the ways that people, enterprises and the broader surroundings may be affected by changing conditions or extreme events. To some degree this is a matter for experts of various kinds. But the capacity of local community members to assess local risks is well documented.202 There is also evidence of the proven ability of children and young people to be effectively involved in environmental monitoring and assessment, as well as in planning solutions and decisions.203

Many people feel a certain impatience at the notion of involving children in real life planning and monitoring, seeing their participation as something that, at worst, is a pointless and inappropriate waste of people’s time, and at best a learning exercise that should probably take place on the sidelines.204 A common assumption is that children are too young to really notice what is going on around them or to have anything useful to contribute.
Children and young people, in fact, tend to have a lively awareness of the events surrounding them – even the youngest children take in more than is often acknowledged. They generally have a detailed knowledge of their surroundings and can be excellent informants on local realities.205 It is also clear from experience that children have a significant contribution to make, often bringing a fresh perspective to issues, and coming up with concerns and solutions that may have been overlooked.206 It is worth noting, however, that while children and young people tend to be alert observers of the local scene, slowly deteriorating conditions, along with repeated exposure to more extreme weather, may dull the awareness necessary for proactive responses. This tendency to accommodate to difficulty is, as noted above, a phenomenon for adults as well, but it has particular relevance for children with their more limited frame of reference. This is an issue elaborated on by Peter Kahn in his discussion of “environmental generational amnesia”.207 The fact that children have a shorter time frame for evaluating change has implications for how best to support their active stewardship.

Health promotion is another area where children can be actively involved. Especially in the absence of adequate provision, a more effective alternative in many settings than hygiene awareness programmes for overburdened caregivers appears to be the use of “child-to-child” health education measures. This approach, materials for which were originally developed by the Child-to-Child trust in Britain,208 developed around the notion that in many places children are the de facto caregivers for younger siblings and need to be adequately informed about everyday health risks. The child-to-child approach focuses not only on care for younger children, but on children caring for themselves and improving the level of health awareness within their communities. Experience with this approach has indicated that children can be well informed sources of information and advocates for change within their communities.209 Children might be involved in such activities, for instance, as surveying the changing incidence of diarrhoea in their communities during different kinds of weather, or looking at patterns of injury, and informing people of their findings.210
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