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Women’s vulnerabilities to extreme climate events in Pakistan

By Muhammad Amir Fahim, Masooma Hassan, Bashir Ahmad, and Naveed Mustafa

The frequency and intensity of extreme climate events have unprecedentedly increased in Pakistan. Floods, droughts, glacier retreat, melt, ablation, glacial lake outburst floods, and extreme temperatures have been frequently observed in almost all parts of the country. Not a single region escapes vulnerabilities, risks, and losses by an ever increasing number of extreme climate events. According to the World Bank (WB), farms and other places in Pakistan have lost more than 10 billion dollars and thousands of lives in just a little span of four consecutive floods. According to Germanwatch, Pakistan is the seventh country most vulnerable to climate change in the world. Most importantly, scientific studies with varying confidence predict an increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme climate events.

According to the World Economic Forum's (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2016, Pakistan ranks 143 out of 144 countries in the gender inequality index. So globally, in view of such gender inequality, environmental, and humanitarian concerns several important questions arise. For instance, how is climate change pushing poor and vulnerable women in Pakistan to become more vulnerable, and how is the vulnerability of women exacerbated by probable climate shocks. Also, what is the voice and need of women like, and how can women reduce their risks and vulnerabilities to climate change while ensuring sustainable livelihood throughout generations.

It is a scientific fact that the impacts of climate change would be different because of different vulnerabilities in the world. The impacts and vulnerabilities might be innumerable, but, in this blog, we are going to talk only about a few aspects of gender-differentiated vulnerabilities.

First, health is the most important thing in a human life. Climate shocks or extreme climate events pose huge threats and risks to the life and health of women. The probability of an early death, of fatal injuries, infections, and offences for women increases in the absence of adequate measures for floods, heat waves, and droughts. Quite the reverse, the probability decreases by a significant percentage when voices of women are heard, training on coping strategies is imparted, and financial aid is spent on gender-sensitive activities. So, Gender-centric development to climate change, research work, training, information, and technology can reduce the risks to women’s health and life.  Furthermore, bad governance and the culture of power with its patriarchal biases make women more prone to sexual offences in the Indus area. For example, in the floods of 2010, many women went missing and until today their families do not know where they are! The pain felt by the families of missing women is indescribable.

Second, heat waves have taken a huge death toll in Sindh Province. The vulnearbility of women facing those was found high, since they did not have access to training on simple coping methods such as runnign cold water on wrist ceins, drinking green tea, etc. There are evidences that coping strategies could have reduced the risk of losing lives and sustaining injuries caused by the heat waves.

Third, seasonal rainfall variability is causing water scarcity in most parts of the country. This has huge implications for women, because non-availability of water for the household results in poor hygiene and sanitation as also food insecurity. More so, often the absence of safe drinking water causes the spread of water-borne diseases among women. On the positive side, adaptive capacities of women can be enhanced by promoting water harvesting and training on sustainable water practices.

Fourth, rural women in Pakistan have little opportunity to develop capacities to adapt to crisis events. This is because they have limited access to material resources, information, education, extension services, finances, critical information on weather alerts, land rights, and cropping patterns. These limitations undermine their capacities to take up structural and non-structural adaptive measures. Moreover, women are involved in so many different tasks already – productive, reproductive, and care work, water collection, cooking fuel collection, and so on. These domestic roles also limit their capacities to respond adequately to climate-related shocks.

Fifth, climatic shocks pose increasing risks to the food security of women in Pakistan. Almost all the three components of food security: food availability, access, and utilization- are worsening. Half of the population is already food-insecure, and these shocks are pushing women to become even more so, thereby increasing their vulnerabilities to climate change.
Sixth, rural women subsist on productive assets such as cows, buffaloes, goats, and chickens in most parts of Pakistan. Floods and droughts have a negative impact on livestock and agriculture, though; they destroy crops and kill livestock. For this reason, women are deciding to disinvest: reduce current consumption of their families, and sometimes take children out of school. This erosion in their capacities for investment and consumption is a poverty trap.

Lastly, it is an established fact that women are more vulnerable to climate change than men. The government, international donor and development organizations, academia, researchers, NGOs, CBOs, and political parties must come forward to involve women in climate change adaptations.
Most reports, surveys, and analyses do not carry gender-segregated data on women’s preferences for climate and sustainability indicators. Such data would allow for a trend analysis that can help reduce the gender gap, along with greater advocacy. In other words, gender-sensitive policy making is crucial to climate-change mitigation and adaption. Its implementation can help society, especially women; tackle humanitarian and environmental crises in Pakistan.