In the communities that inhabit the hills and forests of Nepal, it is the women, as is the case in most other parts of the world, who fetch water for domestic consumption, at dawn every day.
When climate change causes water scarcity in these areas, these women have to travel much longer distances to reach one of those scarce junctions of water availability. Often times, the additional distance doesn’t just consume more time to cover, but traversing through the wilderness with only modest daylight is a challenge in itself.
These women then have to resort to making the travel much later in the day, with the consequence that they are now able to work fewer hours per day; in essence, the poor communities become poorer when water shortage becomes worse.
Problems like these, interestingly enough, will almost go unnoticed by men since water collection remains almost exclusively a women-driven activity.
When policymakers seek to address water scarcity, this scenario could potentially go without the slightest consideration until the effects are felt in the local economy. Even if community leaders were engaged in policymaking, unless the women, too. were integrated into the process, social and cultural challenges would tread invisible paths until the impact they have becomes noticeable.
To simply acknowledge that climate change affects men and women differently wouldn’t suffice; to prepare for their different, and often unique, responses to adaptation strategies is crucial.
Barnadette Resurreccion, Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute, spoke at the Asia Pacific Adaptation Forum in Colombo recently about the layers of complexity that exist, and must be taken into account, while tackling gender issues in climate change.
In the Philippines, where Barnadette worked during a massive drought that hit the country recently, water shortage was rampant across several regions and the plurality of communities that lived there.
Although the drought showed no favoritism for class and affected both the rich and the poor, Barnadette was surprised to find that the richest of the poor, living in informal settlements where they were denied access to municipal pipelines, had managed to illegally infiltrate those pipelines and procure water for themselves. The poorest of all, however, had to pay for water by the pail. Without access to the pipelines, legally or otherwise, they were left with no choice but to pay for their meagre consumption.
After the Bangladesh floods, though the government had channeled considerable effort into the establishment of resettlement camps, many of the women went back to their homes, despite having been ravaged by the floods and, in most cases, with nothing to go back to.
There exist layers of complexity even within the gender discourse on climate change that are, perhaps, far too complex to completely disentangle but, nonetheless, important to try to.
It is natural, when formulating policy and climate change adaptation strategy, to overlook many of these intricate factors. But at the very least, it is in everyone’s interest to engage with as diverse a collection of perspectives as possible to ensure that climate change adaptation serves everyone, particularly the most vulnerable.
As it stands, if we’re not biased towards the most vulnerable, we’re not doing it right.