Academic journal article The Future of Children

Impacts of Natural Disasters on Children

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Impacts of Natural Disasters on Children

Article excerpt


We can expect climate change to alter the frequency, magnitude, timing, and location of many natural hazards. For example, heat waves are likely to become more frequent, and heavy downpours and flooding more common and more intense. Hurricanes will likely grow more dangerous, rising sea levels will mean more coastal flooding, and more-frequent and more-intense droughts will produce more wildfires. Children, particularly the poor and those in developing countries, are at risk.

Carolyn Kousky considers three ways that natural disasters may harm children disproportionately, often with long-lasting effects. First, disasters can damage children's physical health. Children may be injured or killed, but they may also suffer from such things as malnutrition caused by disruptions in food supply or diarrheal illness caused by contaminated water. Moreover, disasters can cut off access to medical care, even for non-disaster-related illnesses. Second, disasters can cause mental health problems. Not only are disasters themselves stressful and frightening, but children can suffer psychological harm from the damage to their homes and possessions; from migration; from the grief of losing loved ones; from seeing parents or caregivers undergo stress; from neglect and abuse; and from breakdowns in social networks, neighborhoods, and local economies. Third, disasters can interrupt children's education by displacing families, destroying schools, and pushing children into the labor force to help their families make ends meet in straitened times.

How can we mitigate the dangers to children even as disasters become more powerful and more frequent? For one thing, we can prepare for disasters before they strike, for example, by strengthening school buildings and houses. Kousky also describes actions that have been proven to help children after a disaster, such as quickly reuniting them with parents and caregivers. Finally, a range of policies not designed for disasters can nonetheless help mitigate the harm disasters cause children and their families. In fact, Kousky writes, using existing safety net programs may be easier, faster, and more effective than creating entirely new programs after a disaster occurs.


Scientists predict that as the climate warms, certain weather-related extreme events may increase in frequency or magnitude. In some regions, for example, heat waves may become more common or hurricanes more intense. Scholarship on natural disasters goes back to the 1960s, and recent concern about how climate change will affect disasters has led more researchers to study the topic. Only a small subset of studies, however, have focused on how natural disasters affect children. Yet, on average, roughly half the people affected by disasters are children, and Save the Children estimates that during the next decade, up to 175 million children will be affected by weather-related disasters connected to climate change. (1) Compared with adults, children may be more vulnerable to disasters or have different needs afterward, warranting special attention.

In this review, I seek to answer several questions.

* Do disasters have a disproportional effect on children?

* If so, what are those effects?

* How long do the effects last?

* What can be done to mitigate the harm disasters do?

Research that examines those questions comes largely, although not exclusively, from the fields of economics, public health, and psychiatry.

A few things to note at the outset: I focus on empirical findings, not theory. I limit the scope to weather-related disasters because they are the disasters most likely to be altered by climate change. Although studies of earthquakes or chemical spills, for example, might hold lessons about the impacts of weather-related disasters, I don't include them here. I also focus on sudden-onset disasters, such as severe storms, and not long-duration events, such as droughts, or annual climatological conditions, such as monsoon seasons. …

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