Climate change, conflict and children

Richard Akresh


This paper reviews the evidence linking climate variability to conflict, and the subsequent short and long-term implications of children’s exposure to conflict. Evidence generally supports strong links between hotter temperatures, reduced rainfall and more conflict. Individuals exposed to conflicts while in utero or during early childhood suffer negative health and education effects in the short-term. However, there is limited evidence about the long-term impacts or how conflict exposure after early childhood affects children. Further research is required to help shape policy responses that can address climate-change related violence and the impact on children.

Evidence for a relationship between climate variability and conflicts is quickly growing, and the consensus indicates hotter temperatures and reduced rainfall are leading to more conflicts. However, there is little understanding of the mechanisms linking climate to conflict or how societies adapt to climate change. A better understanding will lead to better long-run predictions. Recently, a number of researchers have begun to expand the focus of climate-conflict research to see whether there is a relationship between extreme temperatures and murders, assaults, rapes and suicides.

Although wars may now generally produce long-term macro-economic harm, research that looks at the micro-economic impacts of exposure to conflict has consistently found harm among groups of people who were directly exposed. Evidence increasingly suggests that the effects of exposure to conflicts are both longer-lasting and more extensive than many might suspect. Research examining the impacts of conflict on children has almost exclusively focused on intergroup, not intrapersonal, conflict.

Evidence from studies into the short-term impacts include:

  • Early malnutrition and stunting as measured by age and gender-standardised measures of height have been shown to affect children exposed to conflict; with those located geographically closer to the conflict more greatly affected (Burundi and Eritrea). Similarly, a study into the effects of political repression in Zimbabwe on children found largely negative effects on children’s height.
  • Exposure in the womb may harm children’s health for a number of reasons, including: poorer maternal nutrition due to disruptions in food supply or income shocks, lack of adequate prenatal care, and the possibility that the conflict reduced the number of deliveries in the presence of trained providers.
  • Evidence on how various kinds of shocks affect children commonly highlights gender bias. For example, agricultural shocks in India and China show better outcomes for boys than girls when it comes to infant mortality, disability and illiteracy.

Recently, researchers have begun to look more closely at longer-term impacts. Evidence includes:

  • Women exposed to the Nigerian civil war during adolescence appear to have greater stunted growth than those who had been exposed to the war between when they were newborn and three years of age.
  • Negative intergenerational effects on health and education appear to be more acute when the first generation are exposed to conflict during their adolescent years (Nigeria).
  • The rate of school enrolment and grade completion drops for children exposed to genocide or civil war (Rwanda, Tajikstan).

Factors that can tilt gendered impacts include: the specifics of the conflict itself, pre-war differences in education levels for each gender, and labour market and educational opportunities in the absence of war.

The paper calls for more research into the following areas to help shape policy decisions to mitigate the impact of conflict on children: mechanisms through which conflict impacts child health and education, how households cope with conflict shocks, and the impacts of conflict on other outcomes including intergenerational transmission of the shock.



Akresh, R. (2016). Climate change, conflict and children. HiCN working paper 221. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.