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Gender Sensitive Response to Climate Crisis

A crowd of people jostling by the ticket counter at Jhansi Railway Station in Uttar Pradesh; men and women, some with families in tow, boarding trains to Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai and other big cities. These are common sights during the summer months at Jhansi, a major town and railway junction. People from rural areas of the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh routinely travel to cities and towns in search of jobs and livelihoods.

Changes in rainfall patterns coupled with the topography, which does not allow rainwater to percolate and recharge the groundwater table, has led to water scarcity impacting the livelihoods and well-being of the people in the region.

A dried up tank in a village in Bundelkhand

For women in Bundelkhand, this means fetching water from long distances. “It’s a never ending cycle for us;” says Sito as she balances 3 pots of water on her head. She, like many other women in the region spends 2-3 hours every day, collecting water for the household. The importance of water for the people in Bundelkhand is best illustrated in the local saying “Khasam mar jaae; gagri naa phoote,” translating as “Let the husband die; but the pot of water should not break.”

Sito’s father works at a factory in Delhi, and her brothers (aged 18 and 21) plan on relocating to Delhi in search of jobs. The 1.5 hectares of agricultural land that Sito’s family owns, is not suitable for cultivation in the absence of an assured source of irrigation. By 2030, Bundelkhand, may turn into a water-scarce region, says the Vision Document for Bundelkhand prepared by the Government of Uttar Pradesh. This will lead to further migration of people in search of livelihoods.

We now turn our focus to Ghoramara, an island in the Sundarbans region of West Bengal, located around 100 km from Kolkata. The Sundarbans is a mangrove area in the delta formed by the confluence of the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna Rivers in the Bay of Bengal, spanning across the Indian state of West Bengal and Bangladesh. It comprises of closed and open mangrove forests, agriculture land, mudflats and barren land, and is intersected by multiple tidal streams and channels.

Once having an area of 26 sq. km, Ghoramara island has shrunk to around 5 sq. km and is likely to disappear due to sea level rise and erosion. The island, once home to 40,000 residents, now houses only 5,000. People have moved out of the island, and those who continue to live here are waiting to be relocated out of their land, the one that belonged to their forefathers, but is slowly being ebbed away by the rising seas owing to climate change.

Landscape of Ghoramara island in the Sundarbans

The harsh realities of Bundelkhand and Sundarbans bring to the forefront, the prediction made years ago by climate scientists and experts. Not only in India but across the world, the effect of climate change and disasters is displacing more people when compared to other reasons like conflicts and violence.

According to the World Migration Report (2020), released by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at the end of 2018, there were a total of 28 million new internal displacements across 148 countries and territories and 61% percent (17.2 million) of these new displacements were triggered by disasters, and 39% (10.8 million) were caused by conflict and violence.

The State of India’s Environment Report-2020 released by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) stated that there were 50 lakh internal displacements in India in 2019. The country had one in five of all internal displacements caused by disasters across the world, mostly caused by floods, cyclones and drought.

Both Bundelkhand and Sundarbans, separated by 1000 km, face a common ‘climate’ crisis, the impact of which is being felt year on year and translates as suffering for the people living in these areas.

The impacts of climate change are felt differently based on one’s gender and women and girls are more vulnerable than men to the impacts of climate change. The main reasons for these are:

  • Women and girls are the primary providers of food, water and fuel, which become scarce due to climate change. Women are also on the frontlines when it comes to combating climate change. They help protect the food and nutrition security of their families and communities.
  • Women and girls often have an unequal and forced responsibility to care for children and the elderly, which makes it harder and more cumbersome for them to leave home. Women displaced by disasters also face an increased risk of gender based violence.
  • Social and cultural norms create barriers for women, making it less likely for them to be involved in decisions on how to prevent, mitigate and cope with climate change, including leaving their homes.

As governments, non-government organizations, research institutions, and private foundations engage and work to devise strategies to empower communities, roll out programs to build the adaptive capacities of communities, it is fundamental that we first work towards developing and scaling-up gender-sensitive climate adaptation and resilience programs.

Secondly, programs and policies of the government must better integrate gender equality efforts and displacement considerations in national adaptation and disaster risk reduction action plans. Lastly, efforts should be made to empower women and girls so that they can play leadership roles in better planning and management in times of crises.

As the government, practitioners, and researchers deliberate and plan action on climate change, let us constantly remind ourselves, that for people (especially women) in Bundelkhand and Sundarbans and many other regions of the world it’s a struggle that they face and are living with, day in and day out. It is time to engage and act to reduce their vulnerabilities and make them stronger to cope with the impacts of the changing climate. We owe it to them!

Women bear the brunt of the climate impacts

Romit Sen, Associate Director – Water Program, ISC
A version of this blog was originally published in the India Water Portal on Aug 14, 2020


Data and information sources:

  • State of India’s Environment Report (2000), Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi
  • Evicted by Climate Change (2000), Care International
  • World Migration Report (2020), UN International Organization for Migration
  • Ghorama Island: Living on the Edge of a Rising Sea, Anup Bhattacharya