The climate crisis is not gender neutral

While climate action requires 100% involvement of the population, at the same time, empowering women would mean better climate solutions

April 10, 2024 01:12 am | Updated 08:43 am IST

‘A gender lens needs to be applied to all State-action plans on climate change’

‘A gender lens needs to be applied to all State-action plans on climate change’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The climate crisis is already here and does not impact everyone equally. Women and girls experience disproportionately high health risks, especially in situations of poverty, and due to existing roles, responsibilities and cultural norms. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), women and children are 14 times more likely than men to die in a disaster. The Supreme Court of India has just ruled that people have a right to be free from the adverse effects of climate change, and the right to a clean environment is already recognised as a fundamental right within the ambit of the right to life.

Agriculture is the most important livelihood source for women in India, particularly in rural India. Climate-driven crop yield reductions increase food insecurity, adversely impacting poor households that already suffer higher nutritional deficiencies. Within small and marginal landholding households, while men face social stigma due to unpaid loans (leading to migration, emotional distress, and sometimes even suicide), women experience higher domestic work burdens, worse health, and greater intimate partner violence. In fact, when compared to districts without droughts in the past 10 years, National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 4 and 5 data showed that women living in drought-prone districts were more underweight, experienced more intimate partner violence and had a higher prevalence of girl marriages. For women, the increasing food and nutritional insecurity, work burdens and income uncertainties lead not only to poor physical health, but also impact their mental health and emotional well-being.

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Extreme events and gender-based violence

The world is witnessing an increasing frequency of extreme weather events and climate-induced natural hazards. A report from the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) in 2021 found that 75% of Indian districts are vulnerable to hydromet disasters (floods, droughts and cyclones). NFHS 5 data showed that over half of women and children living in these districts were at risk. Studies are increasingly showing a direct correlation between these natural disasters and gender-based violence against women. Also, extreme weather events and subsequent changes in water cycle patterns severely impact access to safe drinking water, which increases the drudgery and reduces time for productive work and health care of women and girls.

The past decade has been the hottest ever recorded in human history and countries such as India are likely to face unprecedented heatwaves. Prolonged heat is particularly dangerous for pregnant women (increasing the risk of preterm birth and eclampsia), young children, and the elderly. Similarly, exposure to pollutants in the air (household and outdoor) affects women’s health, causing respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and also the unborn child, impairing its physical and cognitive growth. One of the most worrying aspects of air pollution is its impact on the growing brain. Emerging data from cohort studies in India show that for every 10 micrograms per cubic meter increase in PM2.5, the risk of lung cancer increases by 9%, the risk of cardiovascular deaths on the same day by 3%, and stroke by 8%. For dementia, the risk increased by 4% for 2 micrograms increase in annual PM2.5.

Of course, not all women are equally at risk, even within the same geographic or agro-ecological zone. Thus, though climate change has a distinct gender dimension, there is a need for more evidence on the intersectionalities that make certain sub-groups more vulnerable and therefore in need of more protection.

Why does climate action need women?

Climate action requires 100% of the population if we want to achieve the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5° C. At the same time, empowering women means better climate solutions; when provided with the same access to resources as men, women increased their agricultural yields by 20% to 30%. Tribal and rural women, in particular, have been at the forefront of environmental conservation. Giving women and women collectives (Self-help Groups and Farmer Producer Organisations) the knowledge, tools and access to resources would encourage local solutions to emerge. Adaptation measures will necessarily be different in rural and urban areas as exposure to heat, air pollution and access to water and food will vary by context.

On heatwaves and water shortage

While gaps in data (sex disaggregated data for multiple social outcomes) and knowledge need to be filled by more research, there are areas where immediate action is needed. First, we should reduce the impact of prolonged heat on priority groups (outdoor workers, pregnant women, infants and young children and the elderly). Data from many Indian cities show that there are excess deaths during the heat wave days, though they may not be recognised as such. Loss of productivity will impact small and large businesses and our economy. Urban local bodies, municipal corporations and district authorities in all vulnerable districts need to have a plan and provide training and resources to key implementers. Heat wave warnings (based on local temperature plus humidity), change of timings for outdoor work and schools, cooling rooms in health facilities, public drinking water facilities, and immediate treatment of those with heat stroke will minimize deaths. In addition, urban planning to improve tree cover, minimising concrete, increasing green-blue spaces and designing housing that is better able to withstand heat are longer-term actions. The Mahila Housing Trust in Udaipur showed that painting the roofs of low-income houses with reflective white paint reduced indoor temperatures by 3° C to 4° C and improved quality of life.

Water shortage is probably the biggest threat to our very existence and needs concerted societal action. Traditionally, India had one of the most advanced systems for rainwater harvesting and storage with a system of ponds and canals. Work done by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in a few districts of Tamil Nadu showed that using geographic information systems, the panchayat could map key water sources, identify vulnerabilities and climate hazards and develop a local plan to improve water access by directing government schemes and resources.

Working at the village level

Convergence of sectors and services and prioritisation of actions can happen most effectively at the village or panchayat levels. Devolution of powers and finances and investing in building the capacity of panchayat and SHG members can be India’s way of demonstrating how to build resilience in a community-led and participatory way.

Finally, a gender lens needs to be applied to all State-action plans on climate change. The National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) and State Action Plan on Climate Change (SAPCC) highlight the impacts on women, yet often default to portraying them as victims, missing deeper gender dynamics. A review of 28 SAPCCs showed a lack of transformative approaches, with only a few recognising women as agents of change. Recommendations for the ongoing revision of SAPCCs lay stress on the need to move beyond stereotypes, recognise the vulnerabilities of all genders, and implement gender-transformative strategies, ensuring a comprehensive and equitable approach to climate adaptation. Instead of being labelled as victims, women can lead the way in climate action.

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan s Chairperson, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai

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