Impact of environmental degradation and emergencies on children in Mozambique – Part 1

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MAPUTO, Mozambique, 12 May 2011 – This is the first of three articles about the impact of environmental degradation and emergencies on children in Mozambique. The focus of this article is on health, nutrition, water and sanitation.

A 2006 report commissioned by the WHO found that while 23 per cent of all premature deaths were attributable to modifiable environmental factors, that number rose to 36 per cent among children under 15. Among those whose health is threatened by environmental hazards, children represent the biggest group. Younger children are even more vulnerable: the number of healthy life-years per capita lost to environmental factors was about five times higher in children under five than in the total population. Malaria, diarrhea and respiratory infections, the leading causes of child mortality in Mozambique, are also some of the diseases most strongly linked to modifiable environmental factors.

According to the forthcoming 2010 ‘Child Poverty and Disparities Study’ prepared by UNICEF Mozambique, natural disasters affect children’s health by disrupting their access to health facilities. Cyclones and floods, in particular, can damage health infrastructure and roads, which can make delivery of medical supplies difficult or impossible. Families who have been displaced from their homes due to emergencies are often unable to access health care or continue ongoing treatment.

Food security and nutrition in Mozambique are strongly linked to environmental conditions. Both flooding and drought cause extensive agricultural losses to households dependent on subsistence farming. Over 70 per cent of the population rely on rain-fed agriculture, making the country particularly vulnerable to the water stresses that occur regularly, though not always in the same places or at the same time. For example, in 2001-2002, droughts in southern Mozambique caused the loss of about one third of the expected harvest, leading the Government to request additional international aid to feed some 650,000 people.

Decreased food security often leads resource-poor households to engage in coping mechanisms that are not in the best interest of child nutrition. The effects of undernutrition on children can be severe and lifelong. The main strategies used by rural, food-insecure households are to eat less-preferred foods, reduce the number of meals and eat all or part of seed stock for the next growing season. While adults may adapt to such changes in their diet, the effects on children are more severe because of their different nutritional needs.

Water stress increases many health threats. Poor sanitation is often made worse by environmental conditions such as floods and droughts, with the former typically leading to an increase in water-borne diseases, such as trachoma. An additional water-related health risk that sometimes arises, particularly in northern Mozambique, is the higher levels of cyanide that become concentrated in the cassava root during times of drought. High concentrations of the toxin are a cause of spastic paraparesis, also known as mantakassa, especially among children and women who may already be undernourished.

Most of the country’s vulnerability to environmental hazards is linked to water, whether there is not enough or too much. Both droughts and floods can have devastating effects on children’s access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Shallow wells that normally sustain a community can dry up in times of drought, putting excess pressure on any deeper wells that may exist. Floods can contaminate drinking water, especially in the areas that also have poor sanitation. Weak water and sanitation infrastructure can be easily damaged by floods and cyclones, and areas with poor drainage can increase the risk of cholera, as well as becoming breeding grounds for mosquitoes that carry malaria and other vector-borne diseases.

Children are particularly vulnerable to sanitation-related diseases because of their physiology and because their behavior often places them in greater contact with contaminated water.

For more information, please contact:

Arild Drivdal, UNICEF Mozambique, tel. (+258) 21 481 100; email:

Gabriel Pereira, UNICEF Mozambique, tel. (+258) 21 481 100; email: