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Climate Change and its Impact on Gender in Rural areas of Sindh

Climate Change is a global challenge and there is a nexus between Gender and Climate Change.

Be it drought or the heavy monsoon rainfall, like the recent one, the Climate Change always leaves adverse effects on women. The author had conducted this study when the rural women of Sindh faced the impacts of severe heat and drought.

Meher Noshriwani

Climate Change is a global challenge and the nexus between Gender and Climate Change is still being explored. Within the discourse of gender and climate change over the last 20 years the linkages between women and environment have changed considerably with climate change emphasizing all the environmental issues of the last two decades, and simultaneously the relationships between men and women have become increasingly complex. As global climatic conditions change, its impact on people and the way in which they adapt and cope with these changes have specific gender dimensions, which need to be understood at the local level. It has now been recognized that women are the managers of the natural resource by virtue of being primarily responsible for the household, and that environmental degradation has a direct impact on women. Over the last two decades as the focus on women within the environmental arena has grown, gender has been incorporated into national policies, project planning and development issues. And as the focus changed from Women in Development (WID) to Gender and Development (GAD) and more emphasis was placed on recognizing women’s role in all sectors, a greater understanding of women’s relationship with the natural resource, and within the debate on sustainable development has been developed.

However, the complex relationship between women and climate change is still being explored. Existing studies and research on gender and environment have focused on specific issues such as gender roles in water management, forests etc. but the analytical frameworks to understand the nexus between gender and climate change are still limited. Policy measurers at global and national level have recently recognized that gender equality is essential to achieving climate change goals. And since 2008, several references to gender have entered the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiation text. It is also argued that although climate change affects everyone, it is not gender neutral, since the majority of the poor in the world are women, the impact of climate change is more severe for women than men. So because the impact of climate change on men and women is different, a gender equality perspective is essential for policy, and for strategies of adaptation and mitigation. In this context, women should also be seen as “powerful agents of change” whose participation in planning processes is necessary if the impact of climate change is to be addressed. Thus, women’s issues and problems at the local level must be considered in the wider context of women’s empowerment, their social status, access to resources and opportunities, control over assets, and their social vulnerability, to understand the relationship between gender and climate change.

In Pakistan, the effects of climate change are being felt in many parts of the country, particularly in the rural areas, and along the coast, where the vulnerability of poor communities is increasing and women in particular have to deal with the impact of a rapidly changing climate. Access to food, water and the depleting natural resource has led to a deterioration in the quality of life and a loss of livelihoods.

In 2014, the Social Policy and Development Centre (SPDC) conducted a Research study to investigate gender dimensions of social vulnerability to climate change among rural communities, and to assess the adaptive capacity of men and women at community level and the social capital available to them.   Focus Group Discussions were conducted with men and women in four districts of Sindh, and as part of a team of researchers conducting this research, in June 2014, with temperatures at almost 50 degrees Celsius, and fearing a real possibility of heatstroke, I remember concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other to reach the hut in the distance, in the sandy desert of Tharparkar located in the Thar desert which lies on the eastern border of Sindh, where a Focus Group Discussion with women was being conducted.

There were about ten women in a thatched hut sitting in a circle, who spoke about the extreme heat, changing weather patterns, and compared the rain cycle in the past when the rain was regular, and they could depend on it, to the present when the rainfall is irregular, and accompanied with high winds. The women told us that it had rained earlier that summer, and some weeks ago there were heavy rains with hailstones, an unusual event and high winds, which affected their crops and damaged the land. They also said that the intensity of heat in summer and the cold in winter had increased, and these women perceived climate in terms of changes in weather. To them winter or summer, heat or cold, rainfall, drought, or high winds the weather they experienced and lived on a daily basis was their climate.

As the women spoke, some of them entered the hut or left the group depending on the time they could spare to share their perceptions about climate change with us. I admired their resilience to carry on tending to livestock, and caring for their children in this extreme heat. I hesitantly took out a bottle of water to sip and prevent dehydration, when one woman looked at me and asked; sweet water?

Tharparkar experiences drought every year, and every drop of water is precious. And yet, these men and women cope and adapt to changes in the weather they cannot understand, and have no control over, but have to find ways to survive in conditions which are becoming more severe each year. Climate change was also perceived as changes in seasons, such as summer and winter whose duration has also changed. The summer had become extremely hot, with high rises in temperature, and the winter was not as cold as it was 20 years ago, but its duration has increased. According to one woman:

“Now the winter months last till February, and as a result spring arrives later, and in the intense heat it is very difficult to work, especially since each year the temperature continues to rise. We have no electricity, and there is an acute water shortage. We feel sick, drowsy, and uncomfortable, but we have to carry on with our daily domestic work, despite the heat.”

guested_0This rise in temperature and shifting seasons should also be viewed as factors that increase the vulnerability of a community. Temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius, are extremely harsh and cause great discomfort and distress to the villagers. Seasonal changes also means a disruption in familiar routines, and for the women in particular this means coping with environmental changes without knowledge, information or support to deal with these new conditions.

As stated in a recent report, ‘’ as global average temperatures rise, scientific models indicate that human society will suffer increased heat related illness and death, food insecurity, water stress and spread of infectious diseases.’’ For women this means greater responsibilities, more physical and emotional stress, which makes them more vulnerable and unable to cope with this emerging situation.  Erratic rainfall, and long periods of drought, has also led to a reduction in the biodiversity and wildlife of the area. Changes in grass cover, were also mentioned, particularly in the context of livestock, as grass is the main source of fodder for the animals.

In Dadu, another district located in the south-west of Sindh, in the field sites women were unable to recall what the climate was 20 years ago, but they did remember green and fertile fields, where wheat, and vegetables were grown, where livestock was kept by every family and water was easily available. The fact that women were unable to recall what the climate was in the past, shows how little weather affected their lives 20 years ago. There was a consistency in the seasons and the rhythm of their lives remained constant. In recent years, with the increase in frequency and intensity of natural disasters, and changing weather, the women were much more aware of changes in temperatures and rainfall. This awareness was again evident when female respondents spoke of the heavy rainfall in 2011, which destroyed their crops, and since the weather had changed to extreme heat in summer and longer winters, this had led to a change in the daily living and work patterns for both men and women. For instance, women said, that the intense heat in summer prevents them from staying outdoors for long hours, and in winter the men begin work in the fields later in the day than usual, when it becomes a bit warmer. These minor adjustments to changes in weather patterns have been made by the community in response to what they believe is necessary to cope with the unpredictable new weather patterns.

And so the story continues; once again in Badin a district located in the southern part of Sindh, the main issue raised by both male and female respondents was the increase in water logging and salinity in the last 15 years. Sea intrusion, was believed to be the main cause, which had led to the land becoming uncultivable due to water logging, saline ground water, and greater humidity in the atmosphere. All these factors led to a decrease in agriculture, and an impact on the livelihoods of the villagers. “Due to water logging, the land gives us less and has lost its strength, and the rise in sea level has raised the level of water in the wells, from 50 to 20 feet,” lamented an old woman. Sea intrusion had brought the saline water level up to a depth of 4 feet and the water is very bitter. Hence, they were unable to dig wells anymore, because with changing rainfall patterns, the ground water remained saline. According to the same old women regular rains always diluted the saline water, but now since the rains are not as frequent the salinity remained high.

No matter where we went within Sindh, the situation was the same. In Thatta, which is located about 60 miles from Karachi, the inhabitants were fishermen and completely dependent on fishing for their livelihoods, there was no alternate source of income. And with the decline in fish stocks, and unsustainable fishing practices, the livelihoods of the fishermen and women had been severely affected. In other villages, where the main occupation was livestock rearing and agriculture, livelihood patterns had changed as well. Agriculture had declined, because of saline ground water, and with the loss of crops, farmers had to search for work in factories as wage labor. Livelihood sources had changed, which demanded different skills, and often meant resorting to manual labor, or migration in search of employment.

This Research study revealed the importance of rain in the lives of the people, and how the unpredictability in rainfall patterns has led to a change in the quality of land, ground water, crop yield, and has had an impact on their livelihoods. Basically, climate change was perceived as changes in weather, and manifested in the form of changes in rainfall patterns, seasons, winds, and quality of ground water. In most cases this meant that women have to manage the scarce water resource, and walk long distances in extreme temperatures to bring water for their household needs.

One of the challenges for this Research was to distinguish between the impact of climate change, and the impact of socio-economic issues or market forces. This is where more rigorous research and evidence from the grassroots is needed, and where IUCN with its scientific and social science experts within the Commissions, can increase the understanding of the complex relationship between climate change and gender. As a male respondent from village Mondro in Tharparkar said, “at night when the stars are very bright and the sky is clear, we lose hope of any rainfall’.

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Courtesy: IUCN (Published on August 19, 2016)

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