Silvia Gaya is senior adviser for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), climate and sustainable environment for UNICEF’s East Asia and Pacific Regional Office (EAPRO).
She is an engineer with advanced degrees in politics and international relations.
She brings more than 22 years’ experience in development programs and emergency contexts (natural disasters, conflict, epidemic outbreaks and extreme climate events) and an additional 10 years’ experience working with the private sector in developed countries.
She has managed large programs including climate resilience and adaptation programs in complex environments such as fragile contexts, countries under sanctions, and high-profile emergencies.
In her most recent role in UNICEF’s New York headquarters as senior adviser on water and environment, Gaya provided global leadership in the areas of water, climate resilience, and other environmental sectors in schools and elsewhere.
Excerpt of an interview with Silvia Gaya follow.
Moumita Dastidar: The UNICEF report “Over the Tipping Point” highlights how children in Asia face multiple, often overlapping, shocks and stresses linked to climate change, creating multiplier effects and cascading impacts in the region. Could you talk more about the particular challenges we face here in Asia?
Silvia Gaya: Let me start by saying that for the children in East Asia and the Pacific, the climate crisis is already happening. This is not some future projection. It is a reality that children are already dealing with across the region.
New UNICEF analysis reveals that in the East Asia and Pacific region over 140 million children are highly exposed to water scarcity; 120 million children are highly exposed to coastal flooding; 210 million children are highly exposed to cyclones; and 460 million children are highly exposed to air pollution. This is incredibly worrying.
Moreover, they are facing not just one or two of these types of shocks, but potentially three or four or more of them. It’s appalling that 65% of children across the region face four or more shocks, compared to the global average of 37%.
This is eroding their coping capacities – children lose access to basic services they need, they are forced to leave school, compromising future learning; girls in particular shoulder the burden associated with caregiving at home; and families are forced to sell productive assets.
All of this is exacerbating inequalities that children face. and as the climate crisis worsens, it drives a wedge between wealthy and poor children, as poorer children do not have the means or access to key services that can protect them and build their resilience.
MD: The report also highlights how children in East Asia and the Pacific are experiencing a sixfold increase in the number of climate-related disasters compared with their grandparents. As we are witnessing these alarming crises, how do you think we can readjust to this new reality?
SG: This reinforces the reality that the climate crisis is already here, with just 1.1 degree of warming globally as a result of greenhouse gas emissions already emitted. The only long-term solution to this crisis is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But as the crisis is already happening, and as this is likely to get worse in the years to come, we need to put in place strong adaptation and resilience mechanisms, particularly for children, to ensure that they are able to survive and thrive through the increasing frequency and severity of shocks.
MD: Climate change impacts everyone, yet its effects are experienced unevenly. How does it affect children? How does UNICEF address the impact of this climate crisis on children?
SG: One thing is very clear, and that is that the poorest children are going to be most affected. They have least access to key social services that otherwise would have built their resilience. Moreover, the climate crisis stands to exacerbate not just economic, but also other types of inequalities. For example, it disproportionately affects women and girls, children with disabilities, or indigenous groups.
UNICEF is working hard to ensure that all children, starting with the poorest and most marginalized, receive access to key social services – and that those social services are climate smart and able to continue to serve children and their families, despite the increasing frequency and severity of climate shocks now and in the years to come.
This is the basis of building their resilience and the resilience of their communities. It’s also important to say that we are doing this together with children and youth, as their voices are needed and essential to help them to shape the future they aim for.
MD: The report talks about “climate smart solutions” to counter the devastating impact of the overlapping disasters and shocks. How do these solutions reduce the risks for children affected?
SG: Climate-smart solutions reduce risks for children affected through several mechanisms.
First, climate-smart solutions are durable and built to incorporate the risks that climate change poses. So, for example, water and sanitation facilities are built in a way that they can withstand droughts, floods and saline intrusion; or schools and health clinics are built in a way that they are still accessible after a shock occurs. And this durability is critical to withstand not just one, but several shocks, over time.
Climate-smart services also incorporate early warning systems, so that they are prepared to manage risks before they occur.
Second, climate-smart solutions are tailored to adjust to the new and emerging needs and realities that children face as a result of climate change. For example, the spread of vector borne diseases are likely to increase as a result of climate change, and so health centers might need to adjust to treat those diseases and advice patients on preventing them.
Water and sanitation facilities might need to be adjusted to changing levels of water availability, as a result of changing levels of precipitation due to climate change. In schools, children should be taught the science of climate change, as well as mechanisms to better protect themselves from climate impact.
And last, of course, climate-smart solutions aim to reduce emissions, pollution, and waste as much as possible – to create a better environment for children. By reducing children’s exposure to the shocks and hazards and by reducing their vulnerability, we reduce their risk levels.
MD: What can we, as individuals, do to be part of these solutions, and to protect our environment and our children?
SG: First, learning and understanding the problem is key. I am pleased to say that just by reading this report you are taking the first step – which is having a better understanding of the climate risks.
But there is much more that I would recommend individuals need to know to understand the full range of risks, as well as how they interact with each other. As this report demonstrates, there are many interlinkages between shocks, creating cascading impacts. However, only when we fully understand the scope of the problem can we begin to address it.
Second, I would recommend that we all do everything we can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, which is harmful to children currently, as well as future generations.
Third, I would recommend that you engage with children and young people in your communities – see what their needs are and hear their concerns. Young people have a tremendous amount of insight on this – as they should, this is their planet to inherit.
And last, but certainly not least, advocate with local and national leaders to prioritize children and the services that children depend on most in adaptation plans. This will be essential to reduce the risk that they face from climate change.
We are not going to be able to tackle this crisis successfully unless each of these four points are addressed. We owe it to children to do everything we can to provide them with a livable planet.