The fundamental link between climate change, health and gender

Yeniva Massaquoi and Latha Swamy, Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO)

Increased global incidence of malaria, diarrhoea, malnutrition and extreme weather-related deaths all have links to climate change, in terms of changing disease vectors and the frequency and intensity of weather events. This highlights climate change as a leading health threat, with the World Health Organization (WHO) estimating that climate change causes over 140,000 additional deaths per year. At the international level, 193 countries endorse the World Health Assembly resolution on climate change noting the “serious risk of climate change to global health”. Further, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and WHO have attempted to enhance resilience to, and safeguard health from, the effects of climate change, and to characterise the health benefits associated with reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Health-related climate change impacts are not gender neutral. Given the multiplicity of roles, responsibilities and rights of women worldwide, these effects will depend on context. Negative impacts magnify existing inequalities.

One issue that highlights the links between gender, health and climate change is the collection and use of water. Women are often dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, do most of the agricultural work, and are responsible for collecting water and fuel. Notably, women make up 43 per cent of the agricultural workforce in developing countries. In this context, a ‘perfect storm’ emerges where climate change leads to particularly detrimental consequences for women. Shifting rainfall patterns, increased rates of evaporation and changing population dynamics around water-stressed basins have brought about more frequent and longer droughts. This has resulted in both direct and indirect health impacts for women. Directly, the physical burden of searching for new water sources and carrying heavy loads for longer distances can lead to increased exhaustion and early ageing of the vertebral column (a result of cumulative damage to the spine, neck muscles and lower back).

Indirectly, water scarcity leaves women with little choice but to carry water home from unsafe sources. Collecting water from contaminated streams and ponds exposes women - and their families - to a multitude of water-borne infections including diarrhoeal diseases like cholera and schistosomiasis. Almost 90 per cent of the burden of diarrhoeal disease is attributable to lack of access to safe water and sanitation.

On a positive note, some unique adaptation actions have emerged. In terms of water harvesting, a Kenyan microfinance institution, SMEP, has serviced 29,000 beneficiaries with loans that assist communities to install water harvesting equipment, where 92 per cent of loan recipients have been women. Capacity building efforts, for example, through the Lower Usuthu Sustainable Land Management Project of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), support women through community training sessions aimed at building practical skills for constructing their own harvesting tanks. Evaluation of these projects is needed to understand their impact on health and gender equality. Additionally, projects and their results should be incorporated into the larger climate change discourse on health to ensure sustainability.

WEDO continues to advocate within the UNFCCC and elsewhere for certain conditions to ensure successful integration of gender into climate change discourse and policy, notably:

  • The promotion of gender-inclusive decision-making that fosters an institutional culture grounded in a human rights framework and open to taking self-evaluative steps to ensure gendered policies enhance gender equality.
  • Continued collection, analysis and use of sex disaggregated data. As women’s relationships to the environment vary across social constructs, patterns in reliance, use, consumption and production of resources must be evaluated along gender lines to underscore the unique situation of women and guide solutions designed to address their changing realities.
  • Deployment of adequate resources (human and financial).
  • Characterisation of women as active agents for change. Rather than seeing women only as victims, it is crucial to see women as change agents, participants and stakeholders in deriving solutions.