• Gabriel Yahya Haage

Climate Change, the Humanitarian Crisis in South Sudan and the impact of UNICEF

Gabriel Yahya Haage, McGill University

In November 2019, the Trump administration officially withdrew from the Paris Agreement. However, President Biden has taken steps to return to the agreement and to increase climate change mitigation. Such political reversals on climate policy are nothing new, as Canadians learned when Prime Minister Stephen Harper removed Canada from the Kyoto Protocol. What is done about climate change often hinges on the politics of the current government rather than the facts involved. This is troubling when it occurs in countries that are most responsible for the current Climate Crisis.

But as the different parties within these countries argue about these issues, people tend to forget that the brunt of the devastation is occurring in other, less powerful, countries.

There is much we can learn about the links between climate change and developing nations. With co-author Natália Britto dos Santos, I recently wrote a book chapter that looked at lessons we can take from Child-Friendly Schools, which are often set up in developing nations by groups like UNICEF (Yahya Haage & Britto dos Santos, 2019). While there is some overlap in the themes of that chapter and this article, I want to focus here on a single nation and how it is impacted by climate change.

The newly formed country of South Sudan is a prime example and can act as a case study of climate change impact. Environmental devastation is an undeniable threat to its citizens and overall stability, and this will only get worse. South Sudan is already one of the most rapidly warming countries in the world (Knight, 2013, p. 86). The past few decades have seen an increase of as much as 0.4 ° C per decade (Knight, 2013, p. 89). The temperature will certainly continue to rise, with some climate projections suggesting the temperature for the month of August by 2060 may increase by as much as 3.1 ° C (Goodman, Iltus, & Parker, 2008, p. 35).

South Sudan is already one of the areas most prone to natural disasters and extreme weather. In 2007, for instance, flooding affected around 53,000 households (Knight, 2013, p. 86). An increase in such destructive natural disasters is the most obvious danger to the South Sudanese population. To lessen the impact of such disasters in regions like South Sudan, UNICEF helps build evacuation shelters and schools that will be more resistant to future natural disasters (Iltus, 2013, p. 22). Another initiative is to teach schoolchildren about first aid and help them practice evacuation drills (Iltus, 2013, p. 7).

However, while severe natural disasters are the most obvious signs of a dangerous environment, and their prevalence will increase with climate change, the issue affects many other aspects of South Sudanese life. In fact, the links between a changing climate and suffering can be quite complex.

In South Sudan, environmental degradation can have a particularly gruesome link to escalating violence. For instance, much conflict in South Sudan is due to tribal differences and their competition for natural resources (ACAPS, 2015, pp. 4-5). This is particularly true for pastoralists belonging to different tribes (Knight, 2013, p. 86). The reduced availability of grazing land has forced some pastoral groups to move into regions already occupied by others. As these groups clash, there is an increase in violent interactions (Knight, 2013, p. 86). Students in the Napak region put it succinctly during a focused group discussion: “People here fight over cattle, land, water points and pasture” (quoted in Lehmann, 2015, p. 24). The United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan has reported many incidents of violence, including the deaths of 612 South Sudanese in the Murle tribe (Knight, 2013, p. 87). As one attack leads to another, there has been an increase not only in cattle theft, but also in the abduction of women and children. For instance, in one incident in 2011, 208 children were kidnapped in Uror County (Knight, 2013, p. 87).

Even South Sudanese children who avoid direct violence are in danger of harm due to other issues, including greater levels of disease, food insecurity, poverty and inequality. As stated in a UNICEF report, “Southern Sudan is a dramatic example of a region where a very fragile socio-economic system is being threatened by changes in the climate” (Goodman, Iltus, & Parker, 2008, p. 37). In fact, climate change acts as a “threat multiplier” in this region, exacerbating many different pre-existent threats (Goodman, Iltus, & Parker, 2008, p. 37). UNICEF also stresses that humanitarian issues, including poverty, adequate sanitation and health, cannot be solved without dealing with climate change (UNICEF WASH Division, 2016). As a UNICEF document explains, when discussing these issues it is also important to realize that “children will suffer disproportionally from climate change and growing environmental risks" (UNICEF, 2015, p. 10). Increased heat stress can lead to heat stroke, dehydration, sunburn and exhaustion, but also to a greater vulnerability to disease (UNICEF, 2015, pp. 40-41). Water stress also tends to target children (UNICEF, 2015, pp. 22-26). As most agriculture is rain fed, decreased rainfall leads to less access to much needed nutritious food (ACAPS, 2015, p. 7). Sometimes, children are forced to eat fewer meals a day to cope with crop failure (ACAPS, 2015, p. 8). Stunted growth and greater susceptibility to disease are a common result of a lack of nutritious food (UNICEF, 2015, p. 22). Greater water stress can also mean children must travel further each day to fetch water, resulting in many children no longer being able to attend school (UNICEF, 2015, pp. 22-25). This, of course, can exacerbate pre-existent gender inequalities, as daughters, rather than sons, tend to be taken out of school to work at home when times are tough (UNICEF, 2015, p. 27).

Because of the interrelated nature of the problem, UNICEF must take a holistic approach in its aid program. The organization has included the climate change and Environmental Education program as part of its efforts to create Child Friendly Schools in South Sudan (Iltus, 2013). While to some it may seem somewhat odd to emphasize climate change in Child Friendly Schools, the program actually takes many concrete actions to help children in their everyday lives. The efforts within this program range from distributing medication and increasing access to clean water, to helping install early warning systems (Iltus, 2013, pp. 6-7). Children are also taught necessary skills, including how to identify and remove standing water, which is a breeding ground for mosquitoes (Iltus, 2013, p. 7). The planting of community gardens in schools is one important initiative that has been applied in South Sudan (Iltus, 2013, p. 26). In this way, students have access to a reliable source of nutritious food (Iltus, 2013, p. 26).

As discussed above, this is particularly important for girls, who are often taken out of school to work in the home or farm when there is food insecurity (Iltus, 2013, p. 6). Community gardens could offer an alternative food source while encouraging the girls to remain in school. The purposely gender-sensitive curriculum also includes vocational training so young women can have a financial alternative to their current situations (Iltus, 2013, p. 6).

Educating students is of course an important aspect but being educated by students is also a vital part of the program. The program seeks to give children a voice and make them active participants in all aspects of their school environment (Iltus, 2013, pp. 15, 24-25). As the Climate Change and Environmental Education manual explains, the education system must offer “children the opportunity to participate equally with adult stakeholders” (Iltus, 2013, p. 25). One key area in which children can offer their expertise is in helping create a risk management system since they often have firsthand information about the local environment (Iltus, 2013, p. 23).

Providing safe, open forums where children can express themselves, like focus groups and team activities, is a vital step in increasing their agency (Iltus, 2013, pp. 17-20). For instance, discussions with young girls in a South Sudanese school revealed that they were often reluctant to use school latrines, primarily due to cultural stigma and their placement near the schools. As a result, some went so far as to avoid going to school (Iltus, 2013, p. 24). Such firsthand information can lead to concrete action, such as adding privacy screens in the latrines to remove some of the associated stigma (Iltus, 2013, p. 24).

Of course, UNICEF has always emphasized the participation of both children and youth in their work in South Sudan and has conducted several workshops and discussions where they can safely express their views (UNICEF Southern Sudan, 2011; PBEA, November 2014; Lehmann, 2015). Again and again, such events show that children and youth tend to be driven, ambitious and hopeful.

In the end, however, the future of South Sudan is not entirely in the hands of its citizens, let alone its youngest members. Organizations like UNICEF require not only the help of private donors but that of governments, who must actively fight climate change and aid those in other countries to adapt to its effects.

As a young woman put it in a Children and Youth Consultation Workshop, young people “are the bright future of this country” (quoted in UNICEF Southern Sudan, 2011, p. 21). It is now our responsibility to make sure this future can be a possibility.


ACAPS. (2015). South Sudan: Country Profile. Geneva: The Assessment Capacities Project


Goodman, D. L., Iltus, S., & Parker, D. (2008). Climate change and children: a human security challenge. Florence, Italy: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.

Iltus, S. (2013). Climate Change and Environmental Education-A companion to the Child Friendly Schools Manual. New York: United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Knight, T. (2013). Climate change and violent conflicts. Peace Review, 25(1), 83-88.

Lehmann, N. (2015). Youth-Led Participatory Action Research Final Report (Budi County, Eastern Equatoria State, South Sudan). Juba, South Sudan: UNICEF South Sudan.

PBEA. (November 2014). The PBEA Post: Regional Update. New York: UNICEF Peacebuilding Education and Advocacy Programme.

The White House. (2016). United States Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization. Washington, D.C.: United States White House Office.

UNICEF. (2015). Unless we act now: The impact of climate change on children. New York: United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

UNICEF Southern Sudan. (2011). Children and Youth Consultation Report (Juba, Southern Sudan). New York: United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

UNICEF WASH Division. (2016). The Ripple Effect: Climate change and children's access to water and sanitation. New York: United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Yahya Haage, Gabriel and Natália Britto dos Santos. (2019). Education Reform in the Struggle for Climate Justice. In E. Perkins (Ed.), Local Activism for Global Climate Justice: The Great Lakes Watershed. (pp. 193-207). Routledge: Abingdon, United Kingdom.


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