KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 3 — Climate change and environmental degradation can have adverse effects on the healthy growth, development and well-being of children in Malaysia, according to a study conducted by two local universities in collaboration with Unicef Malaysia.

Revealing crucial interconnections between climate change and environmental degradation and children’s health and well-being in Malaysia, the study found that children often fare the worst in climate- and weather-related disasters such as floods, droughts and forest fires due to their lower tolerance levels to climate and environmental risks. 

Despite bearing the brunt of these impacts, “children are consistently overlooked in the design and content of climate policies and processes”. 

Meanwhile, in Unicef’s first child-focused climate risk index launched recently — Children Climate Risk Index which ranks countries based on children’s exposure to climate and environmental shocks — Malaysia ranked 61st on the list of least performing countries where children are most at risk of climate change.

 Affect marginalised communities

Recognising the growing vulnerabilities of children to climate change in Malaysia, Uniceef Malaysia worked together with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) to conduct the first of its kind exploratory study on the “Impact of Climate Change on Children: A Malaysian Perspective” (ICCC) between March 2020 to May 2021.

The ICCC report was launched last week at UKM by Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development deputy secretary-general (Strategic) Dr Hishamuddin Mohd Hashim on behalf of Deputy Minister Datuk Siti Zailah Mohd Yusoff.

According to Unicef Malaysia Innovation & Sustainability Programme specialist Issmail Nnafie, climate change is affecting Malaysian children in a variety of ways, including via vector-borne, water-borne and respiratory diseases linked to climate change, environmental degradation and pollution, disrupted access to education, and injury and death from extreme weather events such as floods.

“Unicef will work continuously with the governments, academics and communities to address environmental degradation and climate change issues and create a sustainable and safe environment for children and young people in Malaysia,” he said when met at the launch of the ICCC report.

ICCC report lead researcher Prof Dr Mazrura Sahani said one of the striking findings of their study was that children in marginalised communities are most vulnerable to climate and environmental risks.

She said marginalised children include those of indigenous communities, undocumented people and the urban poor. They also include children who were abandoned, unregistered at birth or have a disability.

Mazrura said their finding is derived from the three cases studies conducted, with different geographical settings and communities.

"We selected and studied those documented and undocumented minority groups on the island of Pulau Gaya, Sabah; Temiar indigenous people living in the mountainous region at Pos Kuala Mu, Sungai Siput, Perak; and B40 families residing at the Sungai Bonus PPR (People’s Housing Programme) flats in Setapak in urban Kuala Lumpur," she said.

Mazrura said at Pos Kuala Mu, it was found that only 58 percent of the indigenous children could attend school during times of extreme weather patterns, which caused landslides and flash floods and cut off the only access road for the Orang Asli parents to send their children to schools on their motorcycles.

In fact, she added, those children are considered more vulnerable to the weather changes due to their poverty, social and economic conditions, difficult geographical location, poor access to essential services such as water and sanitation, and also illiteracy.

Governance gaps

Mazrura, who is also a professor of public health subspecialising in environmental and occupational epidemiology at UKM, said the ICCC report also highlighted that not all aspects of children's rights have been adequately considered in Malaysia's governance framework on climate and environment, making it high time for all the stakeholders to take priority actions.

"The main problem is that most of the policies and laws reviewed in the study came into existence before climate change became a global issue. For example, climate change is not specifically mentioned in the Renewable Energy Act 2011. Due to this, their content is not in line with Malaysia's pledges at the international level.

"Hence, it is hoped that the ICCC report will raise the alarm for quick interventions from policymakers and key influencers to set in place child-sensitive climate change and environmental policies in Malaysia.  Presently, laws and policies relating to the environment have not recognised children as rights holders and important stakeholders," she said, adding that this obvious gap in legal frameworks does weaken the protection of children's health and well-being against climate change.

 Child-sensitive laws

 The ICCC report recommends that a more child-sensitive governance framework be put in place by ensuring that related laws, policies and plans explicitly address children's role and vulnerabilities in the climate change mitigation and adaptation plans.

"Children's rights to a healthy environment should be systematically and widely interpreted by the Constitution and be integrated into national law and policy,” said Mazrura.

She said the other recommendation suggested by the ICCC report includes instituting a movement to strengthen the education sector to be climate-smart in order to withstand the impacts of climate change.

“For example, we can create initiatives such as climate-smart schools and resilient infrastructures to ensure that school closures and learning disruptions are addressed and minimised in the event of natural disasters," she added.

In the meantime, ICCC report co-researcher Prof Dr Ramzah Dambul from UMS said the Covid-19 pandemic has also revealed the complex interconnection among the environment, health and the economy, based on many studies.

"The aftermath of the climate change crisis during the time of the Covid-19 pandemic has to be seen as an opportune time for the country to rebuild sustainability, placing children and climate change at the top of the agenda.

"This must start with the nation’s National Recovery Plan (NRP) as it is now a right time to reimagine a world that makes children safer today, as well as tomorrow," he said.

The ICCC report can be accessed on the following website: https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/reports/impact-climate-change-children. — Bernama