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Understanding the Lasting Impacts of Climate-Driven Disasters on Children’s Lives

New research underscores the need for targeted interventions and policy measures to protect and support children in the face of disasters, addressing their unique vulnerabilities and ensuring their long-term well-being.


Extreme Weather

A woman and her children walk through the Madhuchara Rohingya refugee camp on January 18, 2018, in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, which experiences seasonal monsoons and resultant flooding. Children are at particular risk during repeated emergencies and repeated disasters. (Photo by Rajib Dhar for Direct Relief)

Disasters can impact lives long after the winds have died down or the fire has stopped burning – and new research is revealing how these kinds of shocks impact children more than a decade later.

According to a Penn State study from earlier this year that focused on children in Peru over a 15-year period, a link exists between experiencing a natural disaster or other similarly impactful economic or agricultural event and poorer testing outcomes across reading, vocabulary, and math, less food security, more time spent on household chores, and worse self-reported health outcomes. The study, authored by Carolyn B. Reyes and Heather Randell, found the effect cumulative, with poorer outcomes for those who had experienced multiple shocks.

Children who experienced these events later in childhood, between 12 and 15 years old, showed worse outcomes overall than those who experienced the events earlier on. The authors point to this older age cohort as being more aware of the event, being in the midst of either transitioning to secondary schooling or supporting their families by doing chores or working as potential reasons.

According to the United States Geological Survey, this data comes as natural disasters are increasing in both frequency and economic impact. In a 2021 report, the World Meteorological Organization found a fivefold increase in weather-driven natural disasters over the 50 years. However, resultant deaths have decreased by a factor of three in that same period.

Specific Vulnerabilities of Children

A 2016 survey of literature related to the impact of natural disasters on children by Carolyn Kousky of Resources for the Future, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit research institute, shared similar findings as those reported by the Penn State team and outlined the ways in which natural disasters can harm a child’s mental and physical health as well as their educational outcomes over the long-term.

Children watch work on a collapsed building site after a powerful earthquake in Maras, Turkey, in February 2023. (Photo by Baran Ozdemir for Direct Relief)

Kousky shared policy recommendations for ways to mitigate such damage, including reinforcing school buildings and homes and placing more emphasis on reuniting families as soon as possible following a disaster. She also highlighted the potential value of supporting existing safety net health care clinics and organizations instead of spinning up new initiatives in the wake of an event.

Kousky, Reyes, and Randell all acknowledged the relatively small sample sizes and specific geographic contexts of much of the existing research but still found pervasive indications that natural disasters harm children’s health in a variety of ways. Kousky identified that children, especially younger children, in contrast to the Peru study, may be more vulnerable than other age groups since they rely on caretakers who might be unable to care for them and are less protected from physical damage due their developing bodies, an example being that children are more at risk of dehydration due to the smaller amount of fluids in their bodies compared to adults.

In severe disasters, children have been found to be less likely to survive compared to adults, such as in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, according to a 2011 study in Economic Journal, which was included in Kousky’s report.

Economic Impacts on Families and Children

On the economic side, the ability of families to stay financially resilient after a disaster depends upon a range of factors, but chief among them, across the studies reviewed by Kousky, Reyes, and Randall, was access to credit and, as reported by Kousky, insurance. Without these resources, families are forced to make do with their savings.

A natural disaster and the resulting financial impact can have dire consequences for children, as families may be forced to decrease their investments in education and might result in children being forced out of school in order to work, as was reported in this year’s Peru study. However, it remains challenging to get more granular causal data as opposed to the correlations being shared.

Health and Nutritional Impacts

Economic conditions can also translate directly into physical health conditions, as families may be unable to access the same amount of nutritious food as before the event. Access to medical care and medications is often impacted as well. Kousky shared that people living in FEMA housing in 2005, following the previous year’s Hurricane Katrina, faced “fragmented” or “nonexistent” access to medical care. In particular, many children were unable to obtain their asthma medication.

Survivors living in FEMA housing at that time also reported high levels of negative mental health impacts on their children. Specifically, half of all parents surveyed said at least one of their kids was experiencing an emotional issue that they did not have before the storm. In a different study, decreases in PTSD symptoms in children were found to occur two and three years after the storm, though more than a quarter of kids still had symptoms after three years.

Assessing additional ways to prepare for disasters, Kousky said that many nondisaster programs can be effective in recovery efforts, including increasing access to credit, offering subsidies for families to maintain continuity of education for their children, and increasing unemployment insurance.

In 2023, Direct Relief provided medical aid to more than 85 countries during both times of disaster and as part of ongoing support. The organization is focused on meeting the health needs of those most vulnerable to disasters, including children.

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