Referred to as the ‘forgotten causalities’ of climate change (Cutter 1995), very few studies have examined the precise nature and magnitude of climate change impacts on children, let alone on the growing number of orphans and vulnerable children in Sub-Sahara Africa (SSA), where climate change is already expected to exact its worst humanitarian toll. This paper examines personal, familial, and contextual circumstances that arise when children lose their parents to HIV/AIDS and how these situations mediate exposure to the impacts of climate-related disasters.
Using the case of flash floods that occurred in Malawi in 2015, and drawing on perspectives from political ecology and social vulnerability theory, the findings of a qualitative study (n = 51) suggest that orphans’ vulnerability to floods was mediated by a number of specific circumstances. These include pre-existing physical health status of surviving parent or guardian, domestic roles they inherited following incapacitation or death of a parent, and social norms governing property inheritance within the traditional extended family system. In addition, the findings also show that the floods shattered livelihoods, forcing orphans into prolonged engagement in exploitative labour pursuits. Furthermore, the findings show that the rainstorm also swept away mementos left behind by parents, with profound effect on orphans’ emotional wellbeing, which affected their interpretation of the meaning of the disaster.
The study underscores (i) the potential of climate change to reconfigure social relations and entrench orphans’ subordinate status (ii) the historical specificity of the factors that mediate the effects of climate change on children.