Editor’s Note: This month, that is June 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Feminism And Environment, where we invite various articles about the diverse range of experiences which we often confront while interacting with our natural as well as social surroundings. If you’d like to share your article, email us at email@example.com.
“Climate change poses the largest threat to human rights and indeed to human existence, that humanity has faced. To address it, we need to profoundly and radically transform our neoliberal model of development that has framed the global economic and political order in the last three decades. Climate change will force change. We can choose to change in ways that are more equitable and just for women and communities or we can continue on a path of destruction and a dystopian future of gross violations, inequality and ultimately, annihilation.”
~Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development’s (APWLD) feminist fossil fuel free future vision statement
Climate change and environmental issues have long been polarized as ‘matters of science and development’, while the grassroots have only been at the receiving end of the crisis created by the failures of governments and experts. Despite 26 years of international diplomacy around climate change under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it was only in the last few years that most of the development agencies including the UN recognized human rights implications of the failure to address climate change.
Climate Change In And Around Us
In Asia-Pacific, Bangladesh and India, are often seen at the very top of the list of countries facing the most risks associated with climate change, while global studies have also placed Nepal, Philippines, Afghanistan and Myanmar within the top 10 countries facing ‘Extreme Risk’. Thus, six of the ten countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are Asian nations. For these countries in the region, which is home to half of the world’s extreme poor (at least 641 million people) there is very little capacity and means for coping with these new challenges. The diversity of the region – geographically, economically, politically and socially – means that peoples’ experiences of climate change are varied, yet their overall state of poverty amplifies their shared vulnerabilities.
“The state of Kerala is specifically vulnerable to the changing climate dynamics owing to its location along the sea coast and steep gradient along the western slopes of the Western Ghats. Main impacts felt especially in coastal communities are,
i) Sea level rise: Climate change induced sea level rise will result in widespread salinity affecting the availability and quality of groundwater for drinking and agriculture purposes in Kerala. Sea level rise will also result in coastal erosion leading to loss of land and livelihoods, sinking coastal towns and cities.
ii) Erratic monsoon: Climate change has affected the monsoon patterns as evidenced by changing spatial and temporal data recorded in Kerala. Rainfall intensity is lower which provides inadequate recharge for ground water and rivers like before. It’s also observed that increase in raindrop size has resulted in increased erosion and infrastructure (like roads) getting damaged faster. Wetlands are adversely affected in such changing patterns.”
Alappuzha has been identified as highly vulnerable to climate change by Kerala State’s Action Plan on Climate Change. This adversely impacts the communities, especially those in the coastal and backwater areas, like Muhamma, which is also a part of the Vembanad-Kol wetland system (largest Ramasar site in India). Rapid urbanization further puts these communities at risk when development projects without an understanding of the ecological and climate impact are implemented (as seen in infrastructure and tourism related activities).
Despite the lack of formalized and accessible scientific literature on specific vulnerabilities of Muhamma, it has been understood through local experts and community knowledge that the town is facing the brunt of Climate Change. Muhamma is also one of the emerging towns in Kerala where women in local communities are proactively taking measures with local institutions to identify and solve the issues faced as a result of Climate Change and environment degradation.
Climate Change As A Gendered Phenomenon
Time and again, reports from the ground show that climate change is not gender neutral. Women are always, and more severely, affected by natural disasters and extreme weather events, including during post-disaster response efforts. On an average, women and children are 14 times more likely to die during a natural disaster than men. During the 2004 Tsunami in the Indian Ocean, three times more women died than men. Traditional gender roles keep women at home, caring for children and the elderly, in less stable housing conditions than the men who leave the house for work in public or commercial buildings.
Entrenched, historically gendered roles mean women are more likely to die in disasters, suffer long term health impacts, face reduced income, increased burden of unpaid care work and destruction of livelihoods. They have limited access to resilient resources that make it harder to break the cycle of poverty. In August 2018, the state of Kerala in India was battered by the worst flood in a century; costing around US $2 billion in damage to infrastructure and the economy. For nearly a whole month, the state was drowning. Unprecedented heavy monsoons linked to the changing ocean currents and warming seas swamped Kerala.
The resulting damage was amplified by poor development decisions that had covered mountain and wetland ecosystems like the Western Ghats with concrete. The floods took away people’s lands, livelihoods, and lives. The havoc in Kerala was met with extraordinary solidarity amongst people from all religions, classes and communities; the rich with the poor, urban citizens with rural people. Fisherfolks provided rescue support alongside the state’s disaster response teams.
From Women As Victims To Women As Rescuers
Global South activists and NGOs have long rejected the dominant conservative view of women of this region as only victims of colonisation, conflicts and climate change. Undocumented and often forgotten, our region is rich with the individual and collective stories of women who have been at the forefront of defining ‘adaptation’ and ‘resilience’ before they were taken over as a service offered from the developed country perspectives.
Changes in the world are not possible without the strength and capacities of these women. They are still at the forefront of many of the present fights against large-scale dams, deforestation, mono-cropping, oil and gas development, mining and polluting industries, which all contribute to climate change. They have also for quite long spearheaded initiatives for local adaptation and livelihoods through frugal innovations and traditional knowledge. These remain unacknowledged and are often just sidelined as ‘case studies’ or ‘success stories’ of ‘big’ development agencies or research agencies.
Histories that have seen women empowered and collectively involved in decision making, show resulting decisions to be more community and environmentally positive. When women are involved in climate or environment related decision making, their power and position in communities are strengthened through access to land and livelihoods. For instance, development with a difference was made during the democratic decentralisation and people’s plan campaign of the government of Kerala, in India, during the 1996-97 period which marked a new approach to development planning in the State.
This video documentation is an effort to highlight the gender dimensions of climate change in Kerala and how local, community led and decentralized approaches as response measures strengthen adaptation and resilience.
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India