Haunting Images Depict Children at the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis

From polluted waters in Cambodia, to smog-heavy Pakistan and bushfire-prone Australia, the next generation is set to be hit hard by climate change.
A girl and her family lives on a boat in Tonlé Sap Lake, Cambodia, which is polluted and suffering from climate change.
Chenla stands in the water for a portrait near her houseboat in Kompong Thom Province, Cambodia. Photo: Lim Sokchanlina / Save the Children

Posing for a photo, Chenla casually stands submerged to her hips in murky water in front of the fishing boat that she calls home. The 15-year-old lives with five other family members in a houseboat on Cambodia’s Tonlé Sap, just a palm leaf roof for shelter.

Afloat Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, described as the “beating heart” of Cambodia, Chenla’s community on the Tonlé Sap is among the worst impacted by climate change globally. Thousands there depend on the fishing industry, but factors such as unpredictable rain patterns, water pollution, and illegal overfishing have caused stocks in the lake to dwindle, making it increasingly difficult for families like Chenla’s to feed themselves or earn a living. 

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“People who live on the river can’t make a living anymore. There’s only death and starvation,” Chenla’s father said. “Because we lost all the fish, the natural resources, including trees and forests that have been cut down, and we have nothing left.”

Chenla and her family on their houseboat on Tonlé Sap Lake, Kompong Thom province, Cambodia. Image: Lim Sokchanlina / Save the Children 

Chenla and her family on their houseboat on Tonlé Sap Lake, Kompong Thom province, Cambodia. Image: Lim Sokchanlina / Save the Children 

But Chenla is just one of billions of children set to inherit a planet experiencing a climate crisis, as highlighted in an experimental photography project published this week that explores the different ways the climate crisis impacts children around the world.

The pictures were taken by three photojournalists from the frontlines of the climate crisis—from Cambodian waters, to smog-heavy Pakistan and bushfire-prone Australia. They were then processed in different ways to represent types of environmental dangers faced by these children in their respective locations. Shots of Chenla’s family were treated with natural materials and climate change-causing chemicals—a reference to worsening pollution in the Tonlé Sap.

“Without action, we risk handing our children a deadlier and more uncertain world,” Inger Ashing, CEO of Save the Children International, said in a press release launching the project on Nov. 1. “These stories show the devastating impact the climate crisis is already having on the lives of children across the world.”

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MengHy, 12, swimming by his grandfather's floating house on Tonlé Sap Lake, Kompong Thom province, Cambodia. Image: Lim Sokchanlina / Save the Children 

MengHy, 12, swimming by his grandfather's floating house on Tonlé Sap Lake, Kompong Thom province, Cambodia. Image: Lim Sokchanlina / Save the Children 

MengHy having lunch with his siblings and grandfather in their floating house. Image: Lim Sokchanlina / Save the Children 

MengHy having lunch with his siblings and grandfather in their floating house. Image: Lim Sokchanlina / Save the Children 

Kimsorn, 18, preparing fishing hooks for her neighbour on her floating house on Tonlé Sap Lake, Kompong Thom province, Cambodia. Image: Lim Sokchanlina / Save the Children 

Kimsorn, 18, preparing fishing hooks for her neighbour on her floating house on Tonlé Sap Lake, Kompong Thom province, Cambodia. Image: Lim Sokchanlina / Save the Children 

Kimsorn taking her boat to collect some work from her neighbour on Tonlé Sap Lake, Kompong Thom province, Cambodia. Image: Lim Sokchanlina / Save the Children 

Kimsorn taking her boat to collect some work from her neighbour on Tonlé Sap Lake, Kompong Thom province, Cambodia. Image: Lim Sokchanlina / Save the Children 

The photos and anecdotes demonstrate something that most know but few truly understand: that climate change affects communities across the world in vastly different ways.

So while water pollution is wreaking havoc on the livelihoods of families in rural Cambodia, in Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan, it’s the air around them that poses the biggest threat as residents are plagued by hazardous levels of pollution.

Zahra, a 12-year-old in Lahore, is well aware of the smog in her city, where toxic gases are released from burning trash on the street. 

A child walks over a bridge in the smog in Lahore, Pakistan. Image: Nad É Ali / Save the Children 

A child walks over a bridge in the smog in Lahore, Pakistan. Image: Nad É Ali / Save the Children 

Zahra, 12, at home with her father and younger brother in Lahore, Pakistan. 

Zahra, 12, at home with her father and younger brother in Lahore, Pakistan. 

“People burn trash in the street. I tell my parents and friends that we should not do that,” said Zahra. “We should not burn trash. We should plant trees. We should keep clean. That is important for climate change.”

Since 2018, the Pakistani government has been rolling out policies to alleviate air pollution in major cities like Islamabad, Karachi, and Lahore. However, these regulations often suffer from weak enforcement.

Lahore’s air pollution almost doubled from 1998 and 2016, and if this continues at the current level, residents are expected to have their lives reduced by 5.3 years compared to places where air quality adheres to the World Health Organization standards.

In light of this state of affairs, the photos taken in Lahore were exposed to common pollutants from the city, resulting in stains and discoloration.

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Rubbish and waste burns along the canals of Lahore, Pakistan. Image: Nad É Ali / Save the Children  

Rubbish and waste burns along the canals of Lahore, Pakistan. Image: Nad É Ali / Save the Children  

But while climate change is known to be the deadliest for marginalized communities in developing countries, some residents in developed countries are also experiencing ecological devastation.

The period from October 2019 to early 2020, now referred to as the “Black Summer,” saw bushfires rampage through forests and neighborhoods in Australia with an unprecedented ferocity as a result of climate change. During the bushfire season, many residents of Batemans Bay lost their homes.

Jim, who has lived in Batemans Bay for 25 years, was forced to evacuate before he could pack his belongings. Within hours, his house was burned to the ground as he watched helplessly.

Raeden, 13, walks with her father Jim, 47, next to driftwood washed up on a beach in Batemans Bay where they now live. Image: Matthew Abbott / Save the Children

Raeden, 13, walks with her father Jim, 47, next to driftwood washed up on a beach in Batemans Bay where they now live. Image: Matthew Abbott / Save the Children

The tragedy was a turning point for Raeden, Jim’s 13-year-old daughter, who had lost her childhood toys and home in a matter of hours. 

“I was just an emotional mess that whole day,” said Raeden. “I didn't know what to do, and also remember running down the stairs and just tackling Dad in a big hug and just bawling my eyes out, because I was just shocked.”

Raeden, 13, walks past a dead tree that has been dislodged due to erosion on a beach in Batemans Bay, Australia. Image: Matthew Abbott / Save the Children

Raeden, 13, walks past a dead tree that has been dislodged due to erosion on a beach in Batemans Bay, Australia. Image: Matthew Abbott / Save the Children

Even those who were lucky enough to still have their homes, have been deeply affected by the catastrophe. When the bushfire was blazing through nearby neighborhoods, 9-year-old Romy and her family had to evacuate to a local beach where thousands of other people gathered in uncertainty, not knowing if they’d have homes to return to. 

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“The sky was orange,” recalled Romy of that fateful day. “Like, seeing a blood orange splatter all over.”

Left to right: Harry 11, Margie, 46, Oscar, 13, Romy, 9, in the backyard of their family home. Image: Matthew Abbott / Save the Children

Left to right: Harry 11, Margie, 46, Oscar, 13, Romy, 9, in the backyard of their family home. Image: Matthew Abbott / Save the Children

While Romy’s house was spared, her attitude towards life was changed profoundly. 

“The thing … that worries me a heap is that what if there's more fires that are going to come?” said Romy. “What if our house gets burned down?”

Romy, 9, sits with her brothers Harry, 11, and Oscar, 13, on a bench outside their home in Batemans Bay, Australia. Image: Matthew Abbott / Save the Children

Romy, 9, sits with her brothers Harry, 11, and Oscar, 13, on a bench outside their home in Batemans Bay, Australia. Image: Matthew Abbott / Save the Children

In a nod to the fiery destruction of bushfires, photos of Batemans Bay residents were exposed to sunlight during development.

As children around the world battle with climate change-induced dangers ranging from food scarcity to air pollution and wildfires, Save the Children hopes their photo project will raise awareness of the threats faced by children in a deteriorating environmental situation.

“Each [story] is a powerful reminder that children are at the heart of this crisis, being robbed of their childhood today and their futures tomorrow,” said Ashing.

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