BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A 12-year-old boy in Kathmandu fears the shoddily-built brick factory he works in will collapse due to heavy rain or an earthquake. Street children in Jakarta say they fall ill when it’s really hot or rainy because they don't get enough food. Filipino kids from Manila’s slums spend a week or two every monsoon in cramped shelters to escape rising waters.
Asia’s impoverished urban children are among the groups most vulnerable to disasters, yet few disaster risk reduction (DRR) programmes in the region focus on them, according to a new report by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and children’s charity Plan International.
“We know little about the risks children living in urban poverty face beyond environmental hazards and how climate change is likely to affect their health. We know even less about how to make children more resilient,” said the report.
It blamed the gaps on a bias towards rural areas in child-centred research and aid agency work.
The few programmes that do target urban children tend to emphasise disaster preparedness, early warning and response, instead of the root causes of vulnerability such as development policy and planning, as they are costlier to tackle, the report said.
In addition, initiatives are mostly based in schools, excluding many of the poorest and most vulnerable children who are forced to work or don’t attend class because it is too expensive, the report added. This is especially so for girls who bear the extra burden of domestic chores, while most families prioritise boys’ education.
The report, based on research in the capitals of Bangladesh, Nepal, the Philippines and Indonesia, urges policymakers and non-profit groups to involve children in establishing DRR programmes.
“Although children are disproportionately at risk on many fronts, they are not just victims. With adequate support and protection, children can also be extraordinarily resilient to stresses and shocks,” the report said.
Children in the four cities had “an impressive variety of ideas on DRR”, refuting claims that young people lack the knowledge and capacity to make meaningful contributions, it added.
Experts say Asia Pacific - home to half the world’s under-18 population, numbering some 1.1 billion - is the most rapidly urbanising continent, and many of its countries are among the most vulnerable to disasters and climate impacts.
Together with the ‘youth bulge’ in Asia’s megacities, where a large proportion of the population consists of infants, children and adolescents, children are a growing focus for DRR.
National averages suggest that city children are generally better off than their rural peers, but the reality is much bleaker for hundreds of millions of children living in urban poverty, the report said.
Low-income informal settlements – which often suffer from poor-quality water, sanitation, infrastructure and healthcare, and homes built on land exposed to hazards like steep slopes or floodplains - may have higher mortality and malnutrition rates among infants and children, the report said.
In interviews with impoverished children, many cited unsafe working conditions, dirty living conditions and poor environmental management as the biggest threats to their health and survival, the report said. For example, all 13 children interviewed in Manila working as scavengers and waste pickers said they had witnessed at least one murder.
“This common finding is important because it reaffirms the need to link DRR with long-term actions that address the chronic lack of development that underpins risk to children (and other vulnerable groups) in urban areas,” the report said.
Large-scale disasters may cause significant loss of life, health and property, but it is the “everyday hazards” such as contaminated food or waterborne diseases, together with smaller disasters, that affect many more children and their families.
Despite the barriers, youth groups are working on DRR issues. The report cited the example of Youth Bind Together outside Metro Manila, which is tackling industrial pollution and related health risks. It raises awareness to advocate for an ordinance requiring all factories to disclose the chemicals they discharge into rivers.
The Urban Poor Environment Society (UPES) is another grassroots group established in 2007 in Birgunj, a city in southern Nepal near the border with India. Formed by youth volunteers from the city’s poorest areas, it has helped many households get loans to put in basic infrastructure for drainage, sanitation and drinking water, among other things.
But such good practices “remain the minority”, the report said, adding that children’s experiences with community decision-making often amount to “tokenistic participation”.
Recent experiences also suggest local governments do not take child- or youth-specific projects as seriously as those involving the whole community, the report said.
“The challenge…is to ensure that children are included in local-level planning processes that are community-driven and sustainable,” it said.