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Droughts caused by climate change may be responsible for stunting millions of children globally

A new study shows that drought and rainfall extremes are explicitly linked with worse child nutrition, and some places are likely to see extreme increases in stunting under severe droughts
UPDATED AUG 13, 2019

While the impact of climate change on agriculture and food production is well-documented, researchers have now found that the changing climate will have severe adverse effects on children’s health.

Droughts increase child stunting or low height for age, a condition that is caused by long-term insufficient nutrient intake and frequent infections, shows a review of 580,000 observations of children from 53 countries.

The analysis shows that drought and rainfall extremes are specifically associated with worse child nutrition, and some places are likely to see extreme increases in stunting under severe droughts. 

“As climate change continues, it is expected to have increasingly adverse impacts on child nutrition outcomes. We use geolocated child nutrition data from 53 developing countries to show that minor to severe droughts as well as severe periods of extreme rainfall are related to child stunting. We explore how various geographic factors mitigate or amplify the effect of drought on child heights. We combine global data on these factors to map where child stunting is currently vulnerable to drought, finding that arid low-income countries with poor governance and political instability are where drought could have the largest effect on child stunting,” says the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to Matthew Cooper, lead author of the study, beyond being of practical relevance to development practitioners and other policymakers, this work shows how much just one of the main effects of climate change - more severe and more frequent droughts - will impact especially children in poor countries, who have not contributed to the climate change problem themselves.

“This is a grave injustice that needs to be addressed,” says Cooper, who started this work as part of the 2018 International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) Young Scientists Summer Program.

The study shows how much just one of the main effects of climate change - more severe and more frequent droughts - will impact especially children in poor countries, who have not contributed to the climate change problem themselves. (Getty Images)

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes malnutrition as deficiencies, excesses, or imbalances in a person’s intake of energy and/or nutrients. It can lead to severe conditions that include wasting (low weight-for-height), stunting (low height-for-age), and underweight (low weight-for-age). According to the WHO estimates, globally, in 2018, 149 million children under the age of five were stunted, 49 million wasted, and 17 million severely wasted.

The research team says that extreme temperatures and erratic rainfall patterns associated with climate change are affecting food production and infrastructure critical to food distribution, which, in turn, directly impact nutrition outcomes.

“Climate change is now widely acknowledged to be a threat to food security and nutrition globally. Rising temperatures due to increased greenhouse gas emissions will change rainfall patterns and temperature around the world, in turn affecting food production and infrastructure critical to food distribution,” say the researchers.

Currently, 1 in 9 people around the world are undernourished, and nearly half of the deaths in children under five years of age are caused by poor nutrition.

The burden is particularly heavy in Africa and parts of South Asia, where conflict, political fragility, and drought are more prevalent, say the researchers.

The findings state that drought, in particular, takes a heavy toll on poor communities, and especially on children in developing countries where a large part of the population’s livelihoods are dependent on subsistence farming and rain-fed agriculture. 

One of the consequences of poor child nutrition is stunting, which impairs growth and development and affects millions of children globally.

More specifically, stunting affects more than 1 in 3 children in many developing countries. 

“While rates of stunting have been in decline globally over the past few decades, hotspots of stunting remain in Africa and South Asia. Further, because stunting has been shown to be very sensitive to climate shocks, climate change could stall or even reverse current gains,” says the team.

According to experts, stunting has many adverse effects on children, including a higher risk of death, reduced physical, cognitive, and educational attainment, and lifelong health problems from reduced immunity and increased disease susceptibility.

“The effects of stunting on a population are long term: the children of parents who experienced early childhood stunting are, in turn, at higher risk for lower developmental levels. Due to decreased earnings and economic output, child stunting can hamper long-term economic growth for generations. Thus, ameliorating child stunting is a critical component of sustainable development,” says the researchers.

They add it is, therefore, important that populations at risk of the effects of drought be identified so that mitigation efforts can be targeted and deployed for maximum effectiveness.

The researchers say while it is relatively easy to identify populations vulnerable to the climate impacts of, for instance, sea-level rise, not enough work has been done to identify populations vulnerable to the effects of drought on food availability and nutrition.

Accordingly, they examined how rainfall extremes have affected nutrition outcomes since 1990. Based on their analysis, the team mapped at-risk populations on a global scale. They outlined areas where droughts would be expected to lead to increased rates of undernutrition, to “assist global policymakers in targeting aid to improve climate resilience for the world’s most vulnerable populations.”

“Many areas, besides those highlighted in our map, would likely see nutritional decreases under severe droughts. And areas shown in this analysis to be vulnerable to moderate drought, like Somalia and the Sahel, would likely see extreme increases in stunting and even famine under severe droughts,” the findings state.

The effect of local rainfall anomalies on height and regions with increased risk of stunting under drought conditions. (Illustration courtesy of Lucy Reading-Ikkanda)

The researchers also found that several factors can make children resilient to droughts, such as good governance, nutritionally diverse crops/agricultural systems, higher levels of imports per capita, overall crop production, and irrigation.

They say investing in these aspects of food systems is expected to pay significant dividends in increasing climate resilience. 

“By assessing all of these factors quantitatively, we were able to identify the places that were the most vulnerable to drought. The most drought vulnerable children are in arid areas with weak governments and little international trade, such as Chad, Sudan, Eritrea, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen,” says the team

They further say, “In addition to these hotspots of drought vulnerability, other areas with some vulnerability included other countries throughout Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East, as well as Papua New Guinea, North Korea, and Haiti.”

According to the researchers, one of the most interesting findings of the study is that nutritionally diverse cropping systems can provide a lot of resilience.

“Our results indicate that to build climate-resilient nutrition systems, policymakers at the national level should focus on effective governance and trade, while local interventions should focus on increasing the nutritional diversity of agricultural systems as well as restoring degraded and bare land. Our results further indicate that increasing crop yields in vulnerable countries can improve drought resilience, while climate change may exacerbate vulnerability by raising temperatures and lowering rainfall averages,” they say. 

The findings could help global actors like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization or the WHO to get a sense of where to target aid and where populations expected to be the most vulnerable to droughts are situated.

The factors that create resilience can also be useful to development practitioners and NGOs working in drought-vulnerable countries, in terms of highlighting the benefits of advocating for and implementing nutritionally diverse farming systems as a way to improve drought resilience, says the team.

“As climate change makes droughts more commonplace and more severe, these results will aid policymakers by highlighting which areas are most vulnerable as well as which factors contribute the most to creating resilient food systems,” says the study.