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Science Tech

How are Women Impacted by Climate Change?

18/09/2009 12:06 pm

This painting by Australian artist Rose Fyson is one in the series Canvas for Climate Change gathered by Oxfam International and exhibited at the 2008 UN Climate Change Negotiations in Poznan, Poland. Photo Credit: Piotr Fajfer / Oxfam International

Commentary on and analysis of climated change is often gender-blind. Yet, women, due to their productive and reproductive roles in families and communities, often bear the brunt of its impact. In particular, women are affected by climate changes related to water, soil, food and disease outbreaks.

The is the first article in a four-part series which explores the gendered impacts of climate change. Stay tuned in the coming months for part two, which details how women are responding to climate change “on the ground;” part three, which explores how women are organizing in preparation for the December 2009 United Nations Conference on Climate Change; and part four, which discusses how the outcomes of the conference might impact women’s rights.

By Masum Momaya

Climate Change refers to changes in the climate over time, including regional or global temperature changes and the increased prevalence of extreme weather conditions. Resulting effects and evidence of climate change include melting glaciers and permafrost; elevated water levels in oceans; forest fires; fatal heat waves, prolonged droughts; water shortages; desertification; soil erosion; erratic rain fall; and severe cyclones, hurricanes and floods. [1]

According to the vast majority of scientists, climate change is the result of human activity – including the clearing of tropical forests for wood, rubber and other products and the copious burning of fossil fuels (i.e. oil, coal and natural gas) to drive cars, generate electricity, and operate homes and businesses. Released emissions from burning fossil fuels act like a blanket, trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and altering weather patterns around the world. {2]

Women are particularly affected by climate change because they generally do not have secure, affordable access to and control over land, water, livestock and trees; thus, they are forced to make do with limited resources and alternatives when their subsistence needs and livelihoods are threatened. Elderly women, disabled women, women widows and indigenous women often face the most acute challenges related to climate change whilst having fewer resources to compensate for and adjust to changes.

Water

Climate change has wreaked havoc on water supplies around the globe. Some places in the world, including much of the African continent, are experiencing more frequent and prolonged droughts and water shortages. Lowered water levels lead to soil erosion, desertification, and when combined with pervasive hot temperatures, result in heat waves, forest fires and deaths from dehydration and heat stroke. Other places in the world have seen massive increases in the frequency and severity of cyclones, hurricanes, floods, typhoons and tsunamis. In such places, the water table is rising, rainfall is overabundant, and atmospheric conditions result in frequent natural disasters. In both instances, women cope with the changes in water.

As the primary collectors of water in the Global South, women and girls now have to walk or travel farther to obtain water and employ more intensive means to collect and store water. In some cases, girls are likely to not attend school to complete these tasks or perform other chores while their mothers get water or engage in other income-generating activities when existing water-dependent tasks such as farming are threatened. Moreover, in some places, it is dangerous for women and girls to travel far to get water – they are raped and abducted as they walk long distances through conflict-ridden territory, sometimes unaccompanied. [3]

In places where water is scarce and difficult to obtain, some governments have turned to the private sector to manage the filtering and distribution of water. More often than not, this has compromised access and affordability of water as many companies seek to turn a profit – often bottling and selling the water to those in the Global North who can pay more for it. When faced with high costs of water, women, who generally balance the allocation of household resources to meet basis needs, are often forced to make difficult choices and trade-offs between food, water, medicines, health care and school fees. [4]

In places like Asia and the Caribbean, women have been faced with either death or difficult rebuilding of lives and homes in the face of severe cyclones, hurricanes, floods and tsunamis. A study of extreme weather between 1981-2002 found that natural disasters kill more women than men or kill women at an earlier age than men. For example, women vastly outnumbered men in tsunami deaths in 2004 and annually, women outnumber men in cyclone deaths in Bangladesh. [5]

Many women are also widowed and made refugees in such extreme weather events, left to generate income, provide for their children and rebuild homes on their own. In camps and temporary housing settlements, women are also vulnerable to gender-based violence. [6] Moreover, changes in ocean temperatures and pollutants in oceans, affect women directly and indirectly. Fisherwomen around the world are seeing changes in the quantity and health of fish available, threatening livelihoods in fishing communities populated by women. [7] Additionally, the gradual warming of the ocean is causing coral bleaching. The loss of coral reefs damages the tourism industry, in which women comprise 46% of the workforce. [8]

Soil & Food

In addition to the impact of climate change on water, permanent temperature changes have reduced the number and biodiversity of available plants, including for medicinal purposes. [9] As a large percentage of the world’s farmers, food gatherers and healers, women are often dependent on local ecosystems for health and livelihoods. Rural women alone are responsible for half of the world’s food production and produce between 60-80% of the food in the Global South. [10]

Temperature changes have limited the kind and diversity of crops farmers, the majority of whom are women, are able to grow, especially to accommodate climate variability itself. [11] For example, atmospheric brown clouds due to increased aerosol and greenhouse gas concentrations are reducing rice harvests worldwide, and rice is a staple food providing the majority of calories in the Global South. [12] This impacts not only nutrition of local families and communities but also income-generating prospects as farmers have fewer choices about what to grow, when and how. Also, since long-run arability of land is dependent on crop diversity and crop rotation, this threatens farmers’ long-term prospects for generating income using the same land and farming techniques.

Moreover, when food is scarce and/or expensive, women and girls are more vulnerable to malnutrition and starvation. [13] For instance, an UNDP study found that rainfall shortages in India resulted in periods of low food consumption, rising food prices and starvation-related deaths of girls. [14] Similarly, during the bread crisis in Egypt between 2007-2008, women and girls compensated for the shortages of bread by working more for paid income outside the home, eating less and spending more time preparing less expensive food from scratch. [15]

Disease

Climate variability also contributes to disease outbreaks in which women are most affected. Temperature changes, lack of clean and adequate water and sanitation infrastructure and lack of adequate, nutritious food can result in the rapid multiplication and spread of disease-carrying insects and pathogens and viral strains. For example, rising temperatures in the East African highlands played a critical role in malaria epidemics. [16] And, in Bangladesh, which experiences severe floods and typhoons, climate change accounted for an estimated 70% variation in recent cholera incidence. [17]

When faced with epidemics, women more often have less access to medical services than men and their workloads increase when they have to spend more time caring for the sick. Also, women and children form the majority (70%) of the world’s poor, and poor households affected by disease have fewer resources to adapt. [18]

Overall, a review of climate changes related to water, soil, food and disease outbreaks shows that women are uniquely impacted. Discussions and policy proposals at the upcoming United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen must consider this unique impact and the perspectives, expertise and “on the ground” experience women bring to this issue.

Learn more about the Gendered Impact of Climate Change:

BRIDGE Report on Gender and Climate Change

Gender Action

Gender CC – Climate Justice for Women

International Union for Conservation of Nature Gender-Based Advocacy on Climate Change

Oxfam Campaign Against Climate Change

United Nations’ Report on Gender and Climate Change

Women’s Environment & Development Organization Campaign on Climate Change

Sources:

[1] http://www.pewclimate.org

[2] http://www.ucusa.org/global_warming

[3] http://www.wedo.org/category/learn/campaigns/climatechange

[4] http://www.cbc.ca/news/features/water/southafrica.html

[5] http://www.wedo.org/category/learn/campaigns/climatechange

[6] http://www.globalfundforwomen.org/cms/images/stories/downloads/disaster-report.pdf

[7] http://www.fao.org/fishery/topic/13789/en

[8] http://www.wedo.org/category/learn/campaigns/climatechange

[9] ibid.

[10]www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/217/46209.html

[11]www.wedo.org/category/learn/campaigns/climatechange

[12] ibid.

[13] http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/217/46209.html

[14] http://www.wedo.org/category/learn/campaigns/climatechange

[15] economica.imow.org

[16] http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1416896

[17] http://www.wedo.org/category/learn/campaigns/climatechange

[18] http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1416896

Article License: Creative Commons – Article License Holder: AWID

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