UN envoy Mary Robinson has called for schoolchildren to be taught more about how their lives directly impact climate change.
At the end of a trip to Ethiopia, which has suffered its most severe drought in half a century, the former president of Ireland said youngsters born today will live through a potentially existential crisis.
The east African nation is among the countries worst affected by climate change — a devastating reality aggravated by the recurring misery of the El Nino weather system that disrupts and stops vital rains in the tropics.
The survival of tens of millions is threatened further by the ensuing La Nina cooling system which is expected to spark flash floods at the end of the year, washing away thin, arid soils.
“We have to be able to climate-proof everything we do,” said Mrs Robinson.
“Everyone now, and I mean everyone, has to think about climate in the context of who they are and where they are. And we need to have a strong input into education, starting in primary schools.”
Mrs Robinson is to report to the UN later this year in her role as envoy for climate change and El Nino.
Her argument for more education is backed by startling figures that it takes 88 Ethiopians to emit as much carbon dioxide as one Irish person.
She was also told that 10.2m people are crying out for food aid in Ethiopia; the funding needed to save lives is €468m short; and that 3m youngsters have stopped going to school because of hunger.
Mrs Robinson marked the crisis as “the emissions problem of a rich world punishing a poor world”.
She said: “We have to really realise that we are into a potential existential problem where future generations, and when I say that, I mean children born today, will live through the whole cycle... they will potentially have incredible problems.”
Ethiopia’s foreign minister, Tedros A Ghebreyesus, said: “We have not contributed to the damage of our climate, nothing... we are the victims.”
Every village Mrs Robinson visited across Tigray — the vast northern region worst hit by the famine of 1984 — has stories of migration.
Seasonal rains failed in the last year, leaving smallholders without enough wheat, maize, or cereal crops to get through the hunger season — the traditionally lean months from March to September.
The vast majority of the 6m people in Tigray are now surviving thanks to the distribution of seeds and nutrient-rich parcels added to daily meals of soup and porridge.
Most of the trip saw the envoy on the ground talking to the mothers and farmers who eke out an existence on arid farmland, usually less than half a hectare for a family of five.
She toured the region with aid agencies Concern, Trócaire, and Goal, and witnessed first-hand the life-saving initiatives they support, including monthly nutrition and health clinics for hundreds of thousands of breastfeeding mothers.
The charities pleaded for world powers to do more to stop the drought in Ethiopia leading to the worst food emergency since the mid-1980s.
Reflecting on Europe’s response to the refugee and migrant crisis, Mrs Robinson said: “If parts of the world warm more quickly and become unlivable, where do they do go?”
Mrs Robinson will take her mission to Honduras and Vietnam before reporting on the crisis and efforts to plan for the future.
The UN said during her trip that 100m people would be affected across the tropics by El Nino and La Nina.
“I think we have to understand the need to factor in the reality for millions of people, particularly children, of climate change in general but in particular when aggravated by El Nino followed by La Nina effect,” said Mrs Robinson.
Senait Gebresadik is eight years old, but her mothering instincts are already finely honed.
UN envoy Mary Robinson spent time with the eight-year-old, who had her stepsister strapped to her back, at a health clinic for hundreds of breastfeeding mothers, beneath the imposing Geralta mountains in Tigray, northern Ethiopia.
Senait is less than three feet tall, possibly stunted from malnutrition, like half the region’s population. Yet she happily took responsibility for the health check for two-year-old Eyeru Terjay, who was asleep across her shoulder.
“I feed her. I take her to bed and I help her to go sleep, like this, on my back,” she said.
Senait and her 12-year-old sister, Frehiwat, who carried their two-year-old niece, Danit Getet, laughed nervously as the medics asked about their mother, who was at an awakening ceremony for dead relatives.
“I’m happy that I take care of the babies and my sister,” Frehiwat said. “Danit had diarrhoea for a long time. We brought her here and she is better.”
Many women walked for up to six hours to be screened for malnutrition and to collect nutrient-rich food parcels at the Goal-supported clinic, near Hawzen.
Both of the girls, luckily, are still in school. Three million other youngsters have dropped out, according to Unicef, as their families have no food to give them.
“I want to stay in school, go to university, and I want to be a teacher,” Frehiwat said.
At another clinic, run by Concern, near Kebele, in eastern Tigray, 1,000 breastfeeding mothers were being screened. The aim is to spot mothers and babies at risk of malnutrition.
More than half a million youngsters and pregnant or breastfeeding mothers had been treated for the condition by the end of March.
Zeizeda Gidey, 35, with her two-year-old boy, Girizay Gebresadik, on her back, and Nigisti Gebresillasie, 37, with three-year-old girl, Sheklit Girizay, had walked for four hours together to get to Sasie Tseda Emba.
Their babies are weighed and they take home food parcels to add to their basic meals of soup, porridge, or stew.
Ms Gidey, who has the crosses of her Orthodox Christian faith etched on her forehead, said her friend has no land and lives in hope her husband can labour on farms.
“We can feed our babies four meals a day,” she said. “Before we came to the clinic, our babies were eating what we put on the plates, just porridge and bread.
“Our harvest was not good, but even though it was small in amount, we made it last four months. But it is too small to feed a family.”
Hailay Gebresillasie, 45, was one of the few men in the clinic. He carried his 10-month-old daughter, Kebiti Hailay, as his wife was checked by medics. His family’s diet was traditional soup and bread.
“We have two meals a day. We have injera and shiro,” he said. “Before we came here, mostly the problem was that some people used to get sick. Now, we feel better.”
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