Climate crisis in sub-Saharan Africa took a toll on children’s education

By Sukie Yang and Kai Feng, doctoral students at the University of Pennsylvania and 2023 GEM Report fellow

Floods killed more than 800 people in Nigeria, Niger, and other nearby countries between June and October, 2022. The floods were deemed the “most devastating” in a decade by the people of Nigeria. Tragically, more than 1.3 million people had to relocate because of the floods, and over a million hectares of farmland were damaged. As people gather for the annual COP summit this week, it seems fitting to highlight the findings of our background paper prepared for the 2023 GEM Report on the impact that such climate related crises have on children’s education.

Climate change makes these crises happen more often. The World Weather Attribution Service found that climate change made the region’s rainy season in 2022 20% wetter than it would have been without climate change caused by humans. The study also says that because of climate change, shorter periods of intense rain in the Lower Niger Basin, which made the floods worse, are now about twice as likely to happen.

While countries in West Africa were dealing with deadly flooding earlier this year, the Sahel, a 5,900-kilometer-long strip of semi-arid land that runs across Africa just south of the Sahara, was in the middle of a food crisis caused by drought. The rainy season in that area was shorter and drier than usual in 2021. As crop yields dropped and food prices went up, food insecurity in a region that was already at risk got worse.

How does the worsening climate crisis affect the educational attainment of kids? We looked into this question by analyzing data from population-level surveys conducted in 10 African countries and 20-year climate data for the 2023 GEM Report.

Although our study did not directly examine the pathways through which exposure to climate hazards affects education, insights from previous literature shed light on potential mechanisms. Firstly, climate change can exert a direct impact on children’s education by influencing educational personnel and infrastructure. Secondly, climate change can lead to reduced family disposable income, either through crop damage and losses in agricultural income or diminished adult productivity and other earnings. Thirdly, health declines triggered by climate change, whether in utero, during early childhood, or throughout the school years, may pose threats to children’s educational attainment. Lastly, displacement or climate-induced migration resulting from acute climate disasters or chronic environmental degradation can present challenges for accessing education among relocated children. In the cohort of children in the ten-country sample we looked at, we found that children had been exposed to prolonged climate anomalies. Specifically, we calculated the cumulative exposure to extreme rainfall and heat from birth onward. Children who were born between 2000 and 2004, on average, have been exposed to more than 24 months (2 years) of anomalies in precipitation or temperature. Furthermore, the impact of climate change on children’s education is not universally distributed across the ten African countries. This variation is partially explained by the diverse climate conditions prevalent across the region. Guinea and Liberia seem to have had the most abnormally high rainfall over the past 20 years. Each country has had an average of 42 months of excessive rainfall, which is the most of any country (more than 3.5 years). In terms of abnormally high temperatures, eight of the ten countries in our analytic sample, including Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, Guinea, Liberia, Mauritania, Mali, and Rwanda, have had them for more than 40 months (cumulatively more than 3 years).

These results also consistently showed that cumulative exposure to climate anomalies has negative impacts on children’s primary education. Factors such as the country and household context are undoubtedly crucial, but equally significant is the timing of a child’s exposure to these changes. This study reveals that exposure to climate anomalies during early childhood has a more pronounced impact on children’s educational attainment. Even after taking into account individual, country, community, and household-level factors, each extra month of unusually high rainfall during early childhood (the first five years of life) is linked to a 0.8% lower chance of completing primary school. This finding is important because it shows that the chance of completing primary school goes down by 2.4% for every additional three months (about one season) of exposure to an anomaly like this. In the same way, each additional three months of low rainfall (a proxy for drought) during early childhood is linked to a 10.3% drop.

Mothers’ education as an important mitigating factor

While exposure to climate anomalies is consistently related to a higher chance of primary school dropouts, the research also found that having a better-educated mother mitigated such adverse impacts.

Children born to mothers with a higher level of education can better adapt to the adverse effects of climate anomalies. The impact of climate change affects the children of lower-educated mothers the most, and as exposure to climate anomalies increases, the gap between the educational outcomes of children from low-educated mothers and those from highly educated mothers widens. Even in economically disadvantaged families, children born to more educated mothers have higher primary school completion rates than children with less educated mothers. Overall, one additional month of climate anomaly exposure decreases the odds of completing primary school by 6.0%. However, with better-educated mothers, the negative effect drops to 1.8%.

The devastating floods and droughts in Sub-Saharan Africa are not isolated events but rather part of a growing pattern of extreme weather occurrences due to climate change. As we have seen in this study, the impact of these climate anomalies on children’s education is substantial, with prolonged exposure leading to a higher likelihood of primary school dropouts. However, the research also offers hope, as it underscores the critical role of mothers’ education in mitigating these adverse effects.

Certainly, within the African context, various other factors at both household and country levels exert influence on children’s education, including economic hardships, transmissible disease, political unrest, and armed conflicts. Nevertheless, increasing studies have discovered the connections between climate anomalies and these well-established obstacles, leading to a more profound understanding of their intricate interactions. As scholars delve deeper into this evolving terrain, it opens new possibilities for comprehensive policy responses that confront the complexity of these challenges.


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