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Children study under open skies as quake rocks education in Pakistan
By Lehaz Ali
Peshawar, Pakistan (AFP) Nov 24, 2015

690 million children at risk from climate change: UNICEF
United Nations, United States (AFP) Nov 24, 2015 - Nearly 690 million of the world's 2.3 billion children live in areas most exposed to climate change, facing higher rates of death, poverty and disease from global warming, the UN children's agency said Tuesday.

Almost 530 million children live in countries hardest-hit by high floods and tropical storms, mostly in Asia.

An additional 160 million kids are growing up in areas suffering severe droughts, mostly in Africa, UNICEF said in the report titled "Unless We Act Now."

"Children will bear the brunt of climate change. They are already bearing a lot of the impact," said Nicholas Rees, a policy specialist at UNICEF and one of the report's authors.

"The sheer number of children exposed to climate risk is alarming," said the report.

US President Barack Obama and China's Xi Jinping are joining more than 135 world leaders in Paris next week for an international conference aimed at clinching the first agreement on tackling global warming in 20 years.

The most urgent task is for world governments to agree on curbing greenhouse gas emissions, said Rees, but action is also needed on the national level to deal with the impact.

"When impacts occur, children must still be able to go to school and get the health care they need," he said.

A key concern is exposure to diseases that could become deadlier as a result of climate change and rising temperatures, including malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea and malnutrition.

Heatwaves, which have become more frequent, are causing more severe rashes, cramps, exhaustion and dehydration, which is a common cause of hyperthermia and death among infants and young children.

The impact of droughts on agriculture is leading to malnutrition and undernutrition, which is responsible for half of worldwide deaths of children under five.

Of the 160 million children who live in areas affected by severe droughts, almost 50 million are in countries where half or more of the population lives on less than four dollars per day.

Climate change makes existing inequalities worse, said Rees.

"A poor child and a rich child don't stand the same chances" when a flood or a drought hits, he said.

Coastal areas in South Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean are among the most vulnerable along with Pacific islands, the Horn of Africa and equatorial Africa.

"Today's children are the least responsible for climate change, but they, and their children, are the ones who will live with its consequences," said UNICEF director Anthony Lake.

The climate conference opens on November 30 and is due to wrap up on December 11.

Ishtiaq Khalid is having a snow day, forced to stay home from his school in the Pakistani district of Shangla due to inclement weather -- but unlike most 12-year-olds, he is not happy about it.

Last month a powerful earthquake destroyed 200 schools and damaged hundreds more in Pakistan's northwest, including Ishtiaq's, leaving thousands of shivering children to study without shelter under wintry skies.

It is a massive setback in an area that has not yet been able to rebuild the schools destroyed in an even more devastating quake a decade ago, and where more than a quarter of primary school age children already do not attend classes.

Engineers have declared the damaged schools too dangerous to study in, saying any aftershocks or further tremors could be "disastrous".

Another 5.9-magnitude quake shook the region late Sunday, and while no major damage was reported, it underscored the point.

"We have been warned because of the fear of aftershocks," said Ishtiaq, who is in the fifth grade at his school in Lelonai village in Shangla district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Parts of his school were reduced to rubble in the 7.5 magnitude quake that ripped across Afghanistan and Pakistan on October 26, killing nearly 400 people.

Authorities reopened the school five days after the tremor -- but students were not allowed inside, forced to study under the open sky in a courtyard. Just days later, rain and snow saw officials cancel classes once more.

"We were happy with the reopening despite attending the classes under open sky and siting on ground," Ishtiaq told AFP.

But now, he says, it is getting colder, and the government has only issued one tent for his entire school.

The teachers can fit inside, he said, but the students cannot.

"It's very hard to sit without a roof in this cold... the number of students is continuously dropping."

- Closed for winter -

Officials in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa said last month's quake completely destroyed 200 schools and damaged some 2,000 more, with preliminary assessments suggesting that up to 8,000 children could be affected.

And with cold weather settling in, they may have to close the schools entirely days before the official start of the winter break.

"The situation is not good," Qaisar Alam, a senior education official in the area, admitted nearly a month after the tremor.

"We are not using the school buildings even with partial damage... Vacation may be announced a week earlier."

The holiday will last until February as usual, but it is not clear whether the damaged schools can be rebuilt by then.

Most of them were in the mountainous districts of Shangla, Upper and Lower Dir, and the scenic Swat valley, where schools destroyed during the Taliban's brief 2007-2009 rule are also being rebuilt.

Some schools were in far-flung villages on remote hilltops where mules are the primary form of transport, making reconstruction especially difficult.

- Ten years of tents -

Authorities said the recent earthquake had compounded their fears for education in the province where they are still struggling to reconstruct 760 schools destroyed in the 2005 disaster, which killed more than 75,000 people and displaced some 3.5 million.

"We were planning a phase-wise arrangements to re-rebuild those 760 buildings... but the recent quake completely destroyed 200 more," Alam told AFP.

The slow progress does not bode well for the future of Ishtiaq's education.

A decade on, thousands of students are still making an arduous comute to schools in other villages or studying in rented buildings, while some have been provided with big tents in which to hold classes, Alam said.

In the village of Shahpur, another student, Abuzar Khan, described huge cracks that appeared in his school building during the quake.

"We are worried. We keep the school bags in rooms and then take classes in the courtyard, under open sky," the seventh-grader told AFP.

Idrees Mehmood, meanwhile, is luckier: when part of his school in Upper Dir district was destroyed by a landslide in the quake, local authorities managed to rent another building for them.

A solid structure might be a help, but Mehmood pointed out, "we have no desks and sit on the floor."

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