Matthew Cooper witnessed the heartbreaking effects of malnutrition on young children, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kissa, a village in southern Mali, and later as a graduate student doing research there. He saw what starvation does to a child — the wasting, the illness, the stunted growth, the dying.

“My host family in Kissa had an infant daughter when I was there in the Peace Corps,” he recalled. “When I went back two years later, she wasn’t there — I asked about her, and she had passed. When you are malnourished, it is much harder for your body to deal with other issues, such as malaria, or parasites or severe diarrhea.”

Cooper’s memories of the many malnourished children he worked with stayed with him and he found himself plumbing deeper into its causes, this time on a global scale. Cooper, now a scientist at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), a global research organization, studied data sets on hundreds of thousands of kids around the world, examining the relationships between drought, rainfall anomalies, and their effects on children’s growth and development.

He found that intense drought, which is occurring more frequently due to climate change, can lead to shortages in the food supply and disruptions in distribution, resulting in malnutrition-related stunting, among other things. The burden is heaviest among young children who live in poor regions of developing nations, including Africa and parts of central Asia, according to the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Oxfam distributes water in parts of Ethiopia affected by drought.
Oxfam distributes water in parts of Ethiopia affected by drought, February 2011. Source: Oxfam

“I think the authors have shown that drought contributes to stunting, and as climate change proceeds, drought is likely to increase and have comparable effects on stunting,” said William Dietz, director of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, who did not take part in the study. “It just confirms that the countries most susceptible to climate change are the ones that contribute the least to climate change. So the onus for these droughts belongs here, to the United States, as we are a huge contributor to climate change.”

The first part of the study examined the link between rainfall variability and children’s heights. “We used data on half a million children from 53 countries combined with data on local rainfall conditions over the course of the 24 months before a child was surveyed,” Cooper said. “We found that when it is wetter or dryer than normal, children tend to be shorter, and that dry periods really matter a lot more than wet periods.” The second phase studied the other factors that affect growth, such as the diversity of local crops, the role of government and international trade.

These include arid countries “with poor governance, substantial conflict, little international trade, and cropping systems that are already under-productive and less diverse,” he said, among them, Somalia, South Sudan, Chad, Eritrea, Yemen, and Sudan, among others. Farmers in such nations, already hard-hit by climate change, are having a tough time coping, Cooper said.

A mother with her child amid drought in Kenya
A mother with her child amid drought in Kenya, July 2011. Source: Oxfam

More than 150 million children globally suffer from stunted growth, meaning their height is too low for their age, and 50 million from wasting, that is, their weight is too low for their height, according to the World Health Organization. This happens when children don’t get enough vitamins and minerals, or healthy foods, such as milk, fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes and meat. Stunting also causes cognitive and developmental delays, and weakens the immune system, making kids vulnerable to other illnesses, and usually is permanent.

“During my training near Bamako, one of the sons of my host family, Sidi, had clubbed feet, which I later learned was because his mother wasn’t properly nourished when he was in the womb,” Cooper said. “Similarly, my language teacher in Kissa, named Lassina, was very short, under 5 feet, quite short for an adult man.”

Last year, an estimated 820 million people were hungry, up from 811 million in 2017, according to a WHO report released in July. This has slackened progress in reducing global stunting and decreasing low birth weight, according to the report.

“Stunting is a chronic problem in the developing world,” Dietz said, and represents just one consequence of malnutrition. Taken together, “malnutrition in all its forms is the highest risk for ill health and premature death, exceeding the risks of tobacco use, diabetes and hypertension.”

Moreover, growing evidence suggests that climate change — including drought and excessive precipitation and their effects on crops and the global food supply — are exacerbating these problems.

“Climate change can have multiple effects, with both erratic or poorly timed rain damaging crops, or drought also damaging crops,” said Paul C. Turner, who studies global stunting and directs the University of Maryland’s institute for applied environmental health. This can have consequences for children. One example under study is how plants, under such stresses as climate change, produce aflatoxins, potent substances that raise the risk of cancer and contribute to childhood stunting.

A herder with one of his few remaining goats during a drought
A herder with one of his few remaining goats during a drought, March 2012. Source: Oxfam

“In agrarian parts of developing countries, the weather affects everything,” Cooper said. “I remember in Mali, where the local language is Bambara, there are like a dozen words for the different kinds of rain — early season heavy rain, late season drizzle, a rain that comes on suddenly, a rainfall after a few weeks with no rain, etc. People really pay attention to rain because if affects everything about farming. If you decide to harvest your cotton on the wrong day, and get caught in sudden rain, you have soggy, worthless cotton, which means a year’s labor has been wasted, and for the next year you have less money to spend on medicine, school for your kids, and gas for your motorcycle.”

While society has become increasingly aware of the direct impacts of climate change — extreme weather, for example — “we often don’t look at the ripple effects of climate change,” Cooper said. “These are hard to predict and model, because food systems and economies are incredibly complex, and often resilient and vulnerable in ways that are hard to anticipate.”

Cooper next plans to study the climate change rainfall predictions for these regions, although he added, “Most of the world is trending towards drought, because drought is a matter of rainfall and temperature. In a hotter world, even if there is more rainfall, drought is more likely because water evaporates faster in high temperatures, so the rainwater doesn’t stay in the soil as long.”

He recommends more so-called “smart aid” to help impoverished farmers, including projects to develop good highways, ports and other infrastructure to countries attract more trade, and lessen reliance on local food production.

“We — the human race — have to do something, and governments have to do it,” he added. “I mention governments to make the point that it will require more than individuals just recycling, flying less and eating less meat. It will require a complete change of our economy, and only governments can make the economy shift to the extent we need it to.”

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.