The consequences of climate change are greatly felt by poor communities in which the most vulnerable of the population are women. This vulnerability emanates from socio-economic disparities that exist between men and women. Given such disparities, catastrophes that are either man-made or of a natural phenomenon have a tendency to exacerbate existing inequalities. The current climate change discourse seeks to prioritize adaptation measures in tackling the adverse effects of global warming rather than a reliance on only mitigation efforts (Aguilar, 2009). As the rate at which the effects of global warming and related consequence of climate change are being felt hastens, mitigation measures have not been able to catch up at the rate of reversing the effects. While measures to tackle climate change should not rely on only one method and should rather install an integrative approach, it is apparent that adaptation measures should be hastened and prioritized to shelter communities from the related unfavourable effects. This process entails a closer inspection of the needs, interests and vulnerabilities of all sections of a society as the impacts of climate change are experienced quite differently by various groups.
Women and the Environment in Ethiopia
Women in Ethiopia make up 50% of the total population according to a 2007 Central Statistics Agency report. As approximately 85% of the Ethiopian population resides in the rural areas, most women therefore are engaged in subsistence form of agriculture. The interaction of women in Ethiopia with their environment is multifaceted. Like in most rural communities, women have been socially assigned the task of safeguarding and tending to their family’s basic needs in the provision of food, health and hygiene maintenance. Where poverty is rampant in rural communities women do not have access to technological facilities or mechanisms that reduce the amount of labour that goes into their house work or food production. Often women have to walk very far distances to gain access to water for drinking and other household needs as well as to collect fuel wood for cooking or for sale. Their involvement in subsistence farming also directly engages them to their natural environment where production for the household and provision of food for the home is solely their responsibility. In terms of biodiversity, Ethiopian women are also engaged in livestock management especially in pastoralist communities where their livelihood is livestock dependent. Additionally, from a spiritual perspective, tree species, mountains and river streams are important to the Oromo ethnic group of Ethiopia, some of whom practice an ancient spiritual tradition that entails performing sacred rituals in the presence of natures attributes aforementioned. The preservation of a healthy and functioning ecosystem is therefore critical to the country’s well being generally but also specifically to Ethiopian women’s safety, socio-economic and spiritual dimensions of their existence.
Effects of Environmental Problems on Women
One of the major environmental problems in Ethiopia is the degradation of land induced by human faults as well as natural processes. As it relates to climate change, the issue of land degradation in Ethiopia is worrisome as the effects of climate change further exacerbate problems that are being experienced from the negative productivity of land within the ecosystem. With an ever burgeoning population huge stresses are being made on land to cater to population increases. The inability of the land to give produce therefore translates into the adoption of the male head of households rural to urban migration as a coping mechanism, often leaving women in their localities to not only maintain their current tasks but also take on the added work of the departed male. Furthermore, land degradation poses a great threat to food security and as the main caretakers of their families women bear the brunt of the related food insecurity.
Although soil erosion is a consequence of natural processes, its acceleration is nevertheless attributable to climate change as well. In Ethiopia, “the annual rate of soil loss in the country is higher than the annual rate of soil formation rate. Annually, Ethiopia loses over 1.5 billion tons of topsoil from the highlands to erosion which could have added about 1.5 million tons of grain to the country’s harvest” (Tamene & Vlek, 2008). Soil erosion therefore also poses a food security challenge for communities that are already experiencing difficulties. With large households to tend to, the Ethiopian rural subsistence farming woman is faced with the trial of stretching resources across many family members. In light of meagre food resources, women tend to fend for themselves lastly thereby undermining their nutritional requirements and health. This phenomenon is especially dangerous in women headed households where the absence of a male providing partner leaves the women in dire situations.
Ethiopia is also prone to frequent droughts, and temperature increases as a result of global warming have made droughts a force to be reckoned with. “Climate scientists predict that by 2034, the 50th anniversary of the 1984 Ethiopia famine, what are now droughts will become the norm, hitting the region three years out of every four” (Oxfam, Drought Need Not Mean Hunger And Destitution – Oxfam, 2009). Many other factors compound to increase the vulnerability of women when a drought hits. Because of women’s double duty at home they are usually not in a position to travel further away from where their homes are in search of food and work as they have the responsibility to tend to children and in some cases elders. In extreme droughts, communities are displaced and women bear the brunt of the displacement as historical socio-economic inequalities are exacerbated in times of such disasters. Lack of education puts women at a disadvantage if trying to integrate in an urban setting, leaving their options of finding alternate forms of income highly unlikely and resulting in extreme poverty.
Displacement is not reserved only to droughts. Climate change related flooding is also a recurring problem that impacts both women and men quite differently. Although Ethiopia experiences seasonal flooding mostly in the western part of the country, other regions are now experiencing the wrath of unexpected floods, uprooting thousands of families and leaving mostly women vulnerable to problems that arise out of such disasters. Given the socially constructed roles, women are usually in their homes with their children when floods hit thereby compromising their survival rates. In addition, as previously mentioned, such disasters do not occur in isolation. Rather, when disaster strikes it has a tendency to reveal underlying inequalities which further worsen the status of women.
Water Shortages & Pollution
As stated earlier, the effects of climate change are experienced much strongly by impoverished sectors of a society. In urban areas, the poor have insufficient access to water as it exists already. However, the problem of acquiring clean and safe water for personal use is intensified in times of water shortages. In rural areas women have to walk up to six hours a day to fetch clean water for cooking and sanitation. Climate change related water shortages increase the distance that women have to walk to access this prized resource. In some instances, they eventually choose to collect water from sources that are polluted from the point of view of availability and mobility. Waterborne illnesses are common in areas where access to safe drinking water is compromised and that lack of access to water altogether also makes women prone to sanitation based diseases. In the case of girls, the lack of water within their communities means that they will have to devote their time searching in far lying communities taking them away from the homes. Also, their education is impacted whereby because of lack of access to water for maintaining their hygiene girls will be forced to stay at home instead.
Existing Environmental Protection Measures
In 2007, the government of Ethiopia developed the country’s National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA) per Article 4.9 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), which encouraged the governments of highly indebted poor countries to draw a plan of action for adaptation to protect against climate change vulnerabilities. Other policies, strategies and programs put in place by the Federal government also include Plan for Accelerated and Sustainable Development to End Poverty (PASDEP), Environmental Policy of Ethiopia, Agriculture and Rural Development Policy and Strategy. However, the NAPA remains to be Ethiopia’s sole document addressing identification of its adaptation priority in light of the country’s low adaptive capacity. While it speaks to the main climate change challenges facing the country, the plan of action lacks a gender perspective in its identification and dealing with vulnerable groups. The UNFCC does not make this requirement explicitly but “it is advised to include a gender principle and hire gender teams to work on gender-mainstreaming the NAPAs” (UNFPA, 2009). Yet this apparent exclusion of a gender perspective gives the impression that women, girls, men and boys are affected by climate change in the same ways. Essentializing all of their vulnerabilities poses a huge threat to drawing appropriate measures in cushioning the respective groups from the consequences of climate change. Although the NAPA has already been drawn, it does not mean that there is no room for further considerations and integration of a gender perspective in the design and implementation of future projects.
The following are a few recommendations on how to engender climate change adaptation in Ethiopia:
- Identify women and girls as most susceptible to effects of climate change. This initial identification is critical because acknowledging where a problem lies is the first step to making attempts to resolve it.
- Include women’s adaptation priorities and concerns by conducting community based assessments.
- Integrate gender criteria when conducting impact assessments.
- Women and men maintain different relationships with their environment and therefore it is important to acknowledge these differences and build on enhancing adaptation based on how each interact with the environment.
- Encourage women’s participation at both the community and national levels allowing for politically marginalized voices to emerge.
- As women are often guardians of vital local and traditional knowledge it is important to consult with them in the design of programmes.
- Proposed activities in NAPA and other policies should include women and encourage their participation as vital stakeholders.
- Tailor environmental education campaigns to address specific needs of women and men.
- Support reproductive health and family planning programs. With the country’s population escalating at an alarming rate in conjunction with cultural beliefs of the merits of more children, it is important to educate and empower women on the links of overpopulation to resource problems. This does not mean that women’s reproductive choices is the problem, rather that they should have the knowledge on reproductive health and family planning options.
- Training of both men and women in situations where environmental impact has necessitated a change in locality.
- Facilitate alternate sources of income for women and assist in gaining loans for income-generating activities.