Women and Climate Change

Long-term impacts of climate change, as well as acute disasters, exacerbate inequalities and make equity issues across the globe painfully apparent. Women particularly are at serious disadvantage. The following posts offer complementary perspectives on how women disproportionately suffer the impacts of disasters, severe weather events, and climate change as traditional gender dynamics play a significant role in determining their proximity, exposure, and ability to respond to climate change impacts.


Women, Water, and Climate Change

by Brittany Whited

angladeshi woman steers raft

In the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, death rates for women across the region were three times that of men. It is believed that these figures reflect that many girls and women lack the upper-body strength to climb to safety, that many had not been taught to swim, and that many mothers tending small children and the elderly were unable to flee and thus were swept away. Although the tsunami was caused by an earthquake, similar impacts can occur resulting from severe weather events, like typhoons and hurricanes, fueled by climate change.

In the United States and across the developed world, most of us have access to clean drinking water. However, people in certain U.S. communities and in many developing countries struggle to meet daily needs. In developing countries particularly, securing water (as well as food and fuel) for the household is almost exclusively the responsibility of women. When the water is brought home and meals are prepared, it’s expected that men and boys receive the lion’s share, often leaving women and girls undernourished. These chores also keep girls out of school and women from more productive economic activities. Rarely do these women have a voice in community or family decision-making, meaning even some of the basic skills we take for granted (like learning to swim or climb trees) can be denied.

Women in Africa toting drinking water

These gender roles mean women and girls are heavily impacted by climate change, paying the lion’s share for poor access to clean drinking water. During times of drought, the time needed to travel to obtain fresh water increases. For example, women in Africa carry drinking water as far as six kilometers a day (nearly 4 miles), and these distances will only increase as local sources dry up. Compounding the fact that the water brought from these distant sources rarely is enough to meet daily needs, it often is contaminated by poor sanitation or other pollutants. During floods, water sources can be contaminated even further, especially in areas with poor waste management. Polluted water supplies can cause foods, such as rice gruel used to wean infants, to be fatal. This not only has health consequences, but is also very time consuming and thus reduces the opportunity for women to engage in educational and economic activities.

As a graduate student studying public health, I have come to realize that our health is not determined exclusively by our access to doctors. Rather, some of the social factors that impact an individual’s health include gender, income, and race, as well as environmental determinants involving the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food to which we have access. We must address these root factors of vulnerability, gender equity, poverty, lack of education, and other social determinants of health before we can truly adapt to the changing climate and prevent injury and early death for women. There are growing efforts to focus attention on gender within grassroots-level adaptation projects, and to international negotiations and policy-making at the highest levels. For example, at the 2012 Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the final decision included a provision establishing the issue of gender and climate change as a standing item on future meeting agendas.

Global climate change will be the most challenging and important issue for public health throughout my career. I realize that preparing for climate change by addressing underlying vulnerabilities, like inequality of women across the globe, will be paramount not only to improving quality of life but for actually saving lives.


Cooking Shouldn’t Kill

by Corinne Hart

A women cooks over an open fire

Rwanda hosts more than 60,000 refugees, many of them fleeing violent political clashes raging around the region. The Gihembe Refugee Camp is home to more than 20,000 of these displaced persons, all of whom are faced with the challenges of daily living, including clean and safe housing, water, and food. I recently visited the Gihembe camp to better understand how agencies like the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) are trying to address the cooking energy needs of the refugees they serve. As we walked around the camp, we saw women cooking over open fires inside small, smoke-filled brick structures, with thick black soot covering the walls. Their simple stoves burn wood, animal dung, or crop waste.

The use of inefficient technologies and cooking fuels like firewood produce high levels of indoor air pollution and force women and girls around the world to endure incredible hardships to secure the energy needed to cook their families’ meals. After walking long distances to search for fuel and carrying heavy loads of firewood, they are rewarded by being exposed to deadly smoke that kills over 4 million people every year. The World Health Organization recently reported that almost 600,000 deaths in Africa are attributable to household air pollution. Exposure is particularly high among women and young children who spend the most time near the domestic hearth. Cooking is essential. It shouldn’t be lethal.

Women and girls are the first to feel the health impacts of traditional cooking practices. In addition to the health burden from smoke inhalation, burning solid fuels releases emissions of some of the most important contributors to global climate change – carbon dioxide, methane and black carbon. In turn, the availability of water – clean water – and food, threaten the most vulnerable. For example, in South Asia, black carbon particles (more than half of which come from cookstoves) disrupt the monsoon and accelerate the melting of the Himalayan-Tibetan glaciers.

The wide-scale adoption of clean cookstoves and fuels can mitigate climate change impacts, particularly by reducing emissions of CO2 from non-renewable harvesting of biomass and by reducing emissions from short-lived greenhouse gases (GHGs) and black carbon through improved combustion efficiency. Clean cooking solutions are both effective mitigation and adaptation strategies, reducing emissions and pressures on natural resources, while at the same time strengthening energy security and empowering women. Additionally, more efficient and cleaner stoves can reduce and prevent deaths from household air pollution and can save women up to 160 hours or $200 per year, allowing women the time and income needed to pursue opportunities of their choice. In the U.S., reducing residential wood smoke is being undertaken by the U.S. EPA. This year, the agency has proposed new standards that govern the manufacture and sale of new residential wood heaters.

There is a growing sector focused on creating awareness about this issue, enhancing the performance and availability of technologies and fuels, and strengthening enterprises so they can scale production and distribution. The effort spearheaded by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership of over 950 organizations across 6 continents, is taking a market-based approach to ensure that culturally-appropriate cookstoves and fuels are available and accessible to those who need them. In addition, with a 30% increase in fuel efficiency from an improved cookstove, a family in Rwanda purchasing fuel could save enough money to send two children to school.

Women are at the heart of the Alliance’s approach and we are working to ensure that women are empowered to continue to take the lead in their communities and contribute to the development of solutions that meet their needs. Fully utilizing women’s expertise, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit can release untapped potential and lead to new approaches. Women represent a powerful force that must be leveraged if we are to address this serious global environmental health issue.

About the authors:

Corinne Hart is the Director of Gender and Humanitarian Programs at the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership comprised of governments, civil society groups, and corporations. She designs and manages the Alliance’s strategies and programs on gender, women’s empowerment, and humanitarian response and has experience working throughout Latin America, Africa, and South Asia. She recently spoke at the June 2014 EPA event on Women as Climate Leaders.

Brittany Whited was a summer intern in the EPA Office of Water, where she studied climate change. She is working on her Masters of Public Health in Environmental Health Science and Policy and will graduate in 2015.

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