Seventeen-year-old Cape Town climate activist Ayakha Melithafa.

“The world is starting to listen to us and more old people have stopped seeing what we are doing as a rebellious act,” says 17-year-old Cape Town climate activist Ayakha Melithafa.

“They see us as taking charge of our future. We are indeed the leaders of today, not tomorrow. This is our future and if we decide to act tomorrow, we may not be able to save the Earth.”

This week, Ayakha together with Swedish climate striker Greta Thunberg and 14 other children, aged between 8 and 17, submitted a groundbreaking 100-page legal complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. They allege that UN member states’ failure to tackle the climate crisis constitutes a violation of child rights.

Earthjustice and global law firm Hausfeld are representing the 16 young people, from Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, India, the Marshall Islands, Nigeria, Palau, South Africa, Sweden, Tunisia, and the US.

Their petition is directed at the biggest climate polluters among the signatories to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child - Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey.

To date, their efforts have been " too slow and too weak to prevent a climate catastrophe," according to Earthjustice.

"The UN Committee (made up of independent child rights experts) will (if it finds that the complaint is admissible) make recommendations to those signatory nations," explains Nicole Loser, an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights.

Ayakha of Eerste River’s complaint details how her mother, Nokulunga, lives in the drought-hit Eastern Cape and supports Ayakha, her siblings and her cousin, mainly through farming.

“Climate change has affected my mom and me because of the terrible drought it is causing,” says Ayakha, who is in Grade 11 at the Centre of Science and Technology in Khayelitsha.

“If they can’t plant in the Eastern Cape and the livestock can’t eat and drink, my mom and other farmers can’t earn any money.”

Some of her mother’s livestock perished in the drought.

“It was very bad for our income,” she told the Saturday Star.

The complaint details how last year, Ayakha along with the other residents of Cape Town, prepared for “Day Zero”.

“The water crisis was really bad because we always had to buy water. At home we had to take shorter showers We had to be really cautious, so we didn’t reach Day Zero. There were a lot of water restrictions.

“There are other people who grow their own food where I live, and it was really hard for them. It was hard to see them unable to feed their families because of the water restrictions.”

The quality of the fresh produce she was used to purchasing from local vendors deteriorated or was no longer available. During the drought, people in her community fell ill from drinking dirty water, and many could not afford to buy bottled water.

“The changes in the weather make me feel sad and angry. There are things you can do about this, but no one is doing anything I want to ensure that I will be part of the solution to climate change, and not just part of the people who are causing the problem,” she says in her complaint.

Ayakha, who describes herself as an "optimistic climate activist", is a recruitment officer and spokesperson for the African Climate Alliance, a youth-led climate advocacy group. She is also a graduate of Project 90 by 2030’s YouLead Initiative and shares her knowledge and experiences in climate activism with her community, planting vegetable gardens, building solar-powered phone chargers, waste use and recycling initiatives.

“People in my community aren’t aware of climate change and how it’s affecting them. They just see the food crisis escalating, the drought and the poor water quality.”

Ayakha, who hopes to study environmental engineering or environmental law, sees a future impacted by climate change as “miserable”.

“It is worse for those living in poverty. The government needs to act.”

The goal of the petition is to get nations to combat climate change to the fullest and fastest extent possible. "The petitioners are not seeking money; they want action," says Earthjustice.

The petition states how the climate crisis is not an abstract future threat. "The 1.1°C rise in global average temperature is presently causing devastating heat waves, forest fires, extreme weather patterns, floods, and sea level rise, infringing on the human rights of millions of people globally. 

Because children are among the most vulnerable to these life-threatening impacts, physiologically and mentally, they will bear the burden of these harms far more and far longer than adults."

It notes how heat waves and droughts are threatening children's lives and creating water scarcity. "In Cape Town, drought has made petitioner Ayakha Melithafa's family and 3.7 million other residents prepare for the day municipal water supplies run dry."

Loser says the petition is an important step in the "mounting wave of pressure against governments to do much more, much sooner, to protect the people, in particular young and future generations, from the devastating impacts of climate change.

"The evidence is undisputable. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change conservatively confirms that climate change will have increasingly severe effects, particularly on poor and vulnerable countries (South Africa being flagged among them), and that we only have 11 years within which to curb emissions and ensure temperature increases do not escalate to catastrophic levels beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius," she says.

Most of the young petitioners explain how climate change is already affecting their lives – imposing hardships and high costs on their day-to-day living and posing direct threats to their cultural ways of life, heritage, and homes, she says.

"All of the petitioners are very concerned about what climate change means for their own futures. They are worried about hardships they will have to endure as they get older; whether they will be able to remain in their home countries and maintain their cultural identities; whether they will be able to have families of their own; and even whether they will be able to grow old. This is nothing short of tragic.

South Africa’s Constitution requires the protection of the environment for the benefit of present and future generations, and confirms that the best interests of the child are of paramount importance. 

"Our government therefore has its own obligations to protect young people and future generations from climate change.

 Arguably, much more needs to be done in this regard – as government continues to promote the burning of fossil fuels for energy; calls for new coal-fired power stations; and lags behind in the adoption of adequate climate change laws and strict emission reduction and climate adaptation commitments.

"At the very least, this petition sends a strong signal (in a series of many strong signals over the past few weeks, including the climate strikes of September 20), to all states that  business as usual is no longer acceptable."

"We can expect to see a growing number of complaints and actions like this one, as the urgent need to curb and address climate change intensifies, and reveals increasing gross human rights violations for young people and vulnerable communities."

The Saturday Star