Climate change is the biggest health threat to children in the 21st century and it represents an immediate global emergency, Save the Children has said.

The organisation has warned that a quarter of a million children could die next year owing to the effects of climate change. It predicts that 175 million children a year will be affected because of an increase in natural disasters forecast for the next decade. Floods, cyclones and droughts will hit children hardest, as they get worse with climate change. These disasters will combine with an increase in malnutrition and disease, already the biggest killers of children.

Launching a report, “Feeling the Heat — Child Survival in a Changing Climate” on Wednesday, the organisation called on the world leaders to sign an ambitious climate change agreement at the Copenhagen summit scheduled for December to help the poorest children cope with the effects of global warming.

According to the report, climate change will more than treble the number of people caught up in natural disasters in the next 20 years, with natural disasters more frequent and severe.

The report also warns that climate change will exacerbate the leading causes of death among children, including diarrhoea, malnutrition and malaria. Diarrhoea, which kills one million children every year, is set to increase by 10 per cent by 2020. Malnutrition, which affects 178 million children and causes 3.2 million child deaths each year, will affect 25 million more children by 2050. And malaria, responsible for one million child deaths a year, will affect up to 320 million more by 2080.

India already lags in its commitment to reduce the mortality of children under five by 2015. Going by the present trends, India will not meet the millennium development goal until 2020 — five years after the promised date.

The report highlights how the poorest people in the poorest communities will be most affected, as climate change reduces their access to clean water and their ability to grow nutritious food, increases food prices and allows malaria mosquitoes to spread. Children in poor communities will be the hardest hit.

It calls upon governments to strengthen health, water and sanitation systems in the poorest countries. Developing countries, including India, must draw up plans for climate change adaptation, keeping in mind the particular needs of children.

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