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Central Sahel: Ground Zero in Tackling Climate Change Through Education

Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait

Yasmine Sherif

NEW YORK, Jun 16 2021 (IPS) - The climate crisis is amplifying the effects of instability and violence in the world’s poorest countries. Nowhere is this more visible than in Africa’s Central Sahel region, where increasing temperature, floods, droughts and other climate change-induced disasters are triggering conflicts, displacement, and pushing girls and boys into the shadows.

The Africa Region Climate Week Virtual Thematic Sessions are taking place this week and soon world leaders will come together for Africa Climate Week, in the lead up to this year’s climate talks in the UK, they must look at education – especially education for girls – as a cornerstone in delivering on our promises for peaceful, low-carbon development in places like the Central Sahel.

Taken together with other actions, education for children and youth caught in climate change-induced emergencies and protracted crises is essential in delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals and reaching the targets outlined in the Paris Agreement.

Forced displacement puts children at risk

Climate change may not be seen as a direct catalyst of conflict, but it is often the root-cause to conflict, leading to forced displacement, or exacerbates conflict dynamics. It is now clear that climate change undermines the ability of vulnerable communities to enjoy their human rights, such as the foundational right of education, hence be able to best cope and adapt.

Unpredictable rains and floods in the Central Sahel, which is warming faster than the global average, are severely impacting populations and their ability to safeguard the right to education, build stability, and end cycles of violence and poverty that severely hamper access to an inclusive quality education. Communities and nations are plagued for decades as a result and the number of out-of-school children and adolescents continues to rise.

More than 1.5 million people have been uprooted in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger alone, according to recent UN reports – most over the last two to three years. Some 13 million people – including 7 million children – are in urgent need of education, food, water, shelter, health.

This under-covered and underfunded emergency, fuelled by multiple overlapping insurgencies, has evolved rapidly for complex reasons. And the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with climate change are putting even more girls and boys at risk every day. Girls are especially affected, as they are the first to bear the brunt of a climate-induced disasters closing down schools and any access to education.

Africa’s Sahel region is at the centre of the accelerating climate crisis, and is “a canary in the coalmine of our warming planet,” according to UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, who describes the level of international aid to help these countries adapt to climate change as “ totally inadequate”.

Researchers say average temperatures across the Sahel rose 1 degree Celsius from 1950 to 2010 while average annual rainfall fell 4.1 cm, outpacing global trends. By the 2060s, temperatures are projected to be 1.2 to 3.6 degrees higher.

Severe drought occurred in the 1970s and 1980s in this region. Moving forward, most projections actually predict an increase in rainfall. While this should be good news for farmers that rely on rains to water their crops, it actually may not be: the rains will be different than before, and will come in extreme events, triggering floods, landslides and other disasters. All these climate impacts are happening on top of COVID-19, rapid population growth, protracted violence and insecurity, gender inequality, and pervasive poverty.

Climate change is a risk multiplier – especially for girls, children with disabilities and other marginalized groups. Conflicts over scarce water and land resources are triggering violence, displacing communities and pushing coping mechanisms to the breaking point. And when things break, children and youth are those who suffer the most. One example comes from Nigeria, where recent analysis indicates that climate change is driving recruitment by armed groups.

Change is on the way. Countries across the Central Sahel are mobilizing resources to address climate change as a mechanism to reduce conflict. But climate action is not enough. We must connect the dots with education and other sustainable development endeavours to achieve long-term results.

Climate action and girls’ education

Without an education, crisis-affected children and youth – especially girls – are at high risk of sexual exploitation, domestic work, early marriage, child labour, and both girls and boys at higher risk of recruitment by armed forces.

Girls and adolescent girls in vulnerable households are more likely to leave school to get married in times of weather-related crises to help ease the burden of scarce household resources. The droughts in Ethiopia in 2010-11, for example, were followed by an increase in the number of girls sold into marriage in exchange for livestock.

Women and girls make up 80 percent of climate refugees worldwide, according to the UN. Warning of the long-term impacts of climate change on migration, the World Bank has estimated that, without concerted action, over 140 million people could be displaced within their countries across sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America by 2050.

Gathering evidence on how the climate displaced are overwhelmingly female and poor, Malala Fund’s recent report, A greener, fairer future: Why leaders need to invest in climate and girls’ education, estimates that climate-related events in 2021 will prevent at least 4 million girls in poorer countries from completing their education. On current trends, by 2025, climate change will be a contributing factor in preventing at least 12.5 million girls from completing their education each year.

Countries that have invested in girls’ education have suffered far fewer losses from droughts and floods than countries with lower levels of girls’ education. A 2013 study analysing the links between girls’ education and disaster risk reduction projected that if 70 per cent of women aged 20 to 39 received at least a lower-secondary education, disaster-related deaths in 130 countries could reduce by 60 per cent by 2050.

Connecting the dots

In Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, over 8 million children aged 6 to 14 are out of school, representing almost 55 per cent of children in this age group, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported in late 2020.

In response to the growing crisis, Education Cannot Wait (ECW) announced new multi-year resilience programs for the Sahel in January 2021, making catalytic investment grants of US$33.3 million across these three countries – with the goal of leveraging an additional US$117 million in co-financing from national and global partners, the private sector and philanthropic foundations. The new programs will reach an initial 300,000 children and youth impacted by climate change, displacement, conflict and COVID-19. Additional investments in Africa – and across the globe – are connecting the dots between education and climate action, with a particular focus on girls and adolescent girls.

Call to action

We cannot achieve 12 years of free, safe, quality education for every girl without climate action. It is time for donors and other global leaders to make the link between education and climate change, not just in theory but in their financing and programming decisions.

As the Malala Fund recently stated: “As leaders gather in 2021 to address the climate crisis at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) and other events, they must not overlook one of the most powerful yet underused strategies in the fight against climate change: Providing girls with 12 years of quality education.”

Quality education means the empowerment of girls and adolescent girls, who one day will enable a pathway to peace, security and stability. An inclusive quality education means resilience, preventive action and reduced risks from natural disasters. It means access to greater incomes and preparedness in the face of future emergencies. It is a pathway to a more sustainable future for all children and young people.

And today, their needs, their voices and their call for change can no longer go unheard. It is time to connect the dots between climate change and education and recognize the sharp reality of what is at risk for them and for generations to come.

The Regional Climate Weeks 2021 Virtual Thematic Sessions for the Africa Region are taking place from 15-18 June 2021. These sessions focus on partnering for whole society engagement in implementation, managing climate risks and seizing transformation opportunities.

Regional Climate Weeks are open to all stakeholders as a ‘go-to’ hub to build partnerships and showcase ground breaking action in the regions. They are designed to encourage and facilitate implementation of ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, along with the implementation of National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), Long-Term Low greenhouse gas Emission Development Strategies (LT-LEDS), and Global Climate Action and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. The Virtual Thematic Sessions are the second segment of the Climate Weeks.


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