Weather Adds Challenges to ChildFund's Work

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By Christine Ennulat
Posted on 1/12/2011
 Mudslides in Uganda
 Last year, mudslides swept through several villages in Uganda.

How’s the weather where you are?

This time of year, weather is on everyone’s minds — but for some, especially families in the places where ChildFund works, the reasons for thinking about the weather are matters of life and death: Will our house stand up through the storm? Will the drought ruin our crops? Is the water drinkable?

How’s the weather where your sponsored child lives?

For most sponsors, the answer is either “warm and extremely dry” or “warm and extremely wet,” because most of the 30 countries where ChildFund works are in the tropics. Twenty-eight ChildFund countries lie between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, parallels of latitude 15 degrees north and south, respectively, of the equator. The United States, Belarus and Afghanistan are the other three nations.

Countries within the tropics have at least one wet season and one dry season — equatorial countries have two, one when the tropical rain belt moves north and another when it moves back south. Because the wet seasons occur in the warmer months of the year, countries north of the equator have them sometime between April and September; those in the south experience rainy seasons at some point from October through March. Lengths of both seasons vary according to latitude, topography and distance from the coast. Extremes in either — too much, too little — can occur at any time.

This time last year, eastern Guatemala was gripped by a drought that media outlets worldwide described as the worst in decades. Crops were lost, and families faced not only the loss of their livelihoods but also starvation and all the collateral illness that malnutrition brings. ChildFund responded by monitoring children’s nutrition levels, distributing protein supplements and helping start community gardens.

In March 2010, mudslides engulfed villages in Uganda, destroying homes, food, gardens, bedding — everything. Potable water was scarce. Diarrhea and mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria became threats. ChildFund provided water purifiers and soap to reduce disease outbreaks.

The weather often adds a challenging dynamic to ChildFund’s work, which requires us to be ever more flexible and responsive.

Although ChildFund is a child development organization rather than a relief organization — that is, rather than directly meeting needs, we work to equip people to meet their own needs — sometimes the situation on the ground requires that we do both. Flooding in India in 2009 provided a case in point. Not only did the rising water destroy homes and livelihoods, but it also brought an array of problems that demanded a truly multifaceted response.

As ChildFund workers, we are on the ground and in the homes listening to the cries of our children and their parents.

— ChildFund area manager
Rhonda Dickson

ChildFund and its partners started with immediate rescue and relief operations: helping families move to temporary shelters, providing clothing, bedding, water and food, and assisting with medical support for pregnant mothers and other vulnerable groups. Then we and our partners helped the most vulnerable with home repair and the purchase of essentials. ChildFund also opened eight child-centered spaces — safe places for children to play and receive services. We also launched eight child well-being committees, comprising community members trained in child protection issues and on supporting the rights and psychosocial needs of children.

But it’s the ongoing work that lays the true foundations that get people through the aftermaths of extreme weather events. Because of their comparative lack of infrastructure, developing countries — or, for that matter, low-income rural areas in the U.S. —  are more vulnerable to catastrophic weather events or other natural disasters than developed countries. Although earthquakes are not weather, the difference between the death tolls from last year’s earthquakes — 220,000 from Haiti’s versus a few hundred from the much stronger Chile quake — brings into stark contrast the difference that socioeconomic development can make in recovery from a natural disaster.

Indeed, research strongly supports the link between socioeconomic development and an area’s ability to bounce back. This makes sense, as preventive measures seem like luxuries to communities that operate in survival mode. ChildFund works hard to help communities invest in prevention, to help them become more resilient and able to withstand calamity. In Indonesia, for example, shelters were built on stilts so that when the flooding came, as it does each year, havens were available for families.

An important part of ChildFund’s work to build resilience is its ongoing, long-range efforts to educate and empower children. In fact, a recent study by the Center for Global Development suggests that the education and empowerment of women in particular may be one of the most effective ways to reduce communities’ vulnerability to natural catastrophes.

That is the big picture. This is the small picture: “As ChildFund workers, we are on the ground and in the homes listening to the cries of our children and their parents,” wrote ChildFund area manager Rhonda Dickson after Hurricane Tomas pounded St. Vincent this fall, destroying homes, businesses and schools, as well as so many fruit trees that the island’s food security is now tenuous.

And ChildFund is there, working to support recovery and reduce vulnerability.

Once again: How’s the weather where your sponsored child lives?