Two-year-old Daniel Angwe appeared unconcerned about the environment around him as he ran around playing with other children near his mother’s makeshift restaurant. Clothed only to the waist and with snot all over his nose, Daniel broke out in loud cries at intervals and tugged at his mother’s cloth where she sat in the kitchen, cutting vegetables.
Comfort Angwe, his mother, tried what she could to appease the child by wiping his tears, and in no time he got distracted and went back to playing.
Just beside where Comfort sat was a three-stone firewood place, with the day’s pot of soup boiling on the fire. Her eyeballs had turned red and tears trickled down her cheeks as a result of firewood smoke.
Her children were also not left out of the effects of the smoke, as she said they sometimes complained of eye pain, headaches and difficulty sleeping at night.
“It affects them very well, especially their eyes. They usually complain that it is paining them and it makes them cry,” Comfort said.
According to her, she would prefer gas because it would help her health and that of her children and also boost her business, but there are no funds.
“I don’t have money; how will I buy it?” she asked
A World Health Organisation WHO report shows that more than one in four deaths of children under five years are attributable to unhealthy environments.
Speaking on the effects of environmental pollution, Henrietta Fore, executive director, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), called for businesses to “ensure that their practices are protective of the natural environment on which children depend”.
But for Comfort, doing business in a polluted environment is a matter of survival.
“I know the smoke will not kill them, except that it is affecting their eyes. My mother used this method of cooking and she did not die,” Comfort said.
But Adetoun Mustapha, councillor for Africa at the International Society of Environmental Epidemiology (ISEE), says Comfort’s position is wrong because for children, their “immune systems are still developing, and their lungs are still growing”.
Mustapha said children need more air per unit of body weight than adults, but living in close proximity to polluting fuels used for cooking could cause health complications like asthma, decrease in pulmonary function, brain damage and negative effects on their mental and motor development.
‘CLIMATE CHANGE IS THE GREATEST THREAT TO CHILDREN’
According to the UNICEF climate risk index report released in August 2021, climate change is the greatest threat facing the world’s children and young people, with one billion children at “extremely high risk”.
In Nigeria, Comfort’s children are not alone in their suffering. Out of 163 countries, the country ranks second on the list of nations where children are most vulnerable to climate change.
For pupils of Lynwofri International Academy at Trademore Estate, Abuja, any rainy day automatically becomes a no-school day as the school cannot risk another experience of what happened on September 13, when flood from rainfall the previous night destroyed exercise books, textbooks, uniforms, desks, creche beds, and computers.
Blessing Nsofor, the school’s head teacher, said she remains grateful that it was a weekend as “a good number of the children would have died because we wouldn’t have been able to save all the children”.
Although the school cleared its surrounding gutters and fortified its walls, some parents withdrew their children, while others rush to pick their children from the school once there is any sign of rain.
CLIMATE CHANGE AND CHILD RIGHTS
Away from education, the issue of water scarcity has become prevalent in Nigeria’s northern region and children are mostly at risk as they have to go long distances in search of water which has become a scarce resource due to climate change.
Ngohide Terlumun, aged 11, and 16-year-old Suleman Mohammed are some of the victims affected by water scarcity.
Squatting near a hole to fetch water, Terlumun hung her head in despair when asked about the water situation in Ipav Mbagule, her community in Gboko LGA of Benue state.
She spoke about constant battles with cholera, diarrhea and bilharzia, adding that sometimes, she doesn’t go to school after fetching water in the morning as a result of house chores.
Terlumum couldn’t converse in English, but with the help of an interpreter, she spoke in her local dialect about what children of her community go through.
Children in Nigeria’s northern region form part of the 920 million children currently exposed to water scarcity, and the situation is likely to worsen as climate change increases severity of droughts and contamination.
For Mohammed, he wakes up as early as 6am to find water in Damba, his community in Zamfara where wells have dried up and there are no infrastructural water facilities like boreholes. The only accessible source of water is an algae-covered dam in a neighbouring village 7km away from Damba.