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Heroes

How a year of storms and drought has changed one child's education.

Many kids in Pacific countries lack access to one of our most basic necessities: clean water.

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Gates Foundation

When I think of the third grade, I think of a classroom. Chairs, desks ... a blackboard, of course. A backpack, pencils, paper.

John's in the third grade too, and he's got all that — plus a bunch of classmates, what seems to be a pretty nice teacher, and access to his natural world.



All GIFs from UNICEF/YouTube.


But there's one school supply that's missing: water.

"We can't get enough water at school," John says in a new video from UNICEF. "I feel like I have more energy when there is water."

Why does John lack access to the most basic of human needs?

His country, Vanuatu, is facing a bad water shortage. Vanuatu normally gets plenty of water from rainfall, but this year a big El Niño — warm ocean waters than can affect global weather — meant that July, August, and September were much drier than usual.

That big spike of warm water off South America means less rain for Vanuatu. Image from Maulucioni/Wikimedia Commons.

The island depends on that rain to recharge its water supply. Now there isn't enough drinking water to go around.

This has caused a lot of kids to become malnourished or sick. Many can't go to school. There have even been cases of children fainting during lessons.

But it's a hard problem to fix when you're still rebuilding after a cyclone.

In March 2015, Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu, killing about a dozen people and devastating local infrastructure. Two-thirds of the country's rainwater harvesters were destroyed.

The aftermath of Cyclone Pam. Image from Julie Lyn/Flickr.

"Many community members are now being forced to walk long distances to reach dwindling alternative water supplies,"said Sune Gudnitz, who coordinates humanitarian affairs for the UN in the Pacific.

Children like John are the ones who suffer most during crises.

"I am very afraid," he says, "that food and water will not be enough for me and my family." John has to use a cup whenever he wants a drink — he can't afford to spill any.

Malnutrition hits kids especially hard, compared to adults. Disease and overheating too. They need food and clean drinking water in order to stay healthy and grow.

Kids across the Pacific are in similar situations.

Many other island nations, such as Kiribati, are also facing water crises. Climate change is predicted to increase sea levels and cause more severe storms, which can damage fragile infrastructure and pollute limited freshwater supplies.

Though the link is still being studied, there is evidence that climate change can also cause more intense episodes of El Niño, which could starve more Pacific nations like Vanuatu of rainfall.

This all spells danger for kids in the future.

"We are hurtling towards a future where the gains being made for the world's children are threatened and their health, wellbeing, livelihoods and survival are compromised ... despite being the least responsible for the causes,"said David Bull, UNICEF's U.K. executive director. "We need to listen to them."

We get to decide the future for John and kids like him.

How will the kids living there now see the world that we're leaving them? John's picture of the future is a lot different than mine was at his age.


"When I grow up, I want to be rich," John says. "I want to be rich so that I can buy food and I will still have some money left."

We can still help. Disaster aid and planning can help head off the worst of climate change's effects, and we can reduce climate change itself through smarter, dedicated action.

Watch John's full video from UNICEF below.

If you want to help change the future but aren't sure how to start, you can help spread the word about health and poverty issues affecting children worldwide by checking out UNICEF's #FightUnfair campaign.

Photo: Jason DeCrow for United Nations Foundation

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