[First published on the WRI India blog, March 06, 2015, and has been adapted from the blog title, “The Role of Women in Climate Adaptation”]

This Climate change has drastic implications on societies, locally and globally. It affects social development factors like poverty, infrastructure, security, and economics. In impoverished communities, the co-relation between climate change and social vulnerability and inequality is particularly evident often resulting in reduced food security and access to safe drinking water, among other things. It is clear that the burden of climate change will be borne differently by different people, based on geographies, generations, age classes, income groups, occupations and genders (IPCC 2007). Moreover, it will fall disproportionately on countries in the developing world, and the poor in all countries, exacerbating conditions of inequity and access to resources, safety, and security (IPCC 2007).

A growing body of climate adaptation work focuses on poverty alleviation to incorporate people’s socio-economic conditions while assessing their vulnerability to the risks and impacts of climate change. Studies show that people’s adaptive capacities are largely restricted based on their socio-economic conditions and cultural inequalities based on gender, age, and class or caste dynamics. A particular climate hazard, such as a drought, does not affect all people within a community – or even the same household – equally because some people have greater capacity than others to manage the crisis (CARE 2010).

Moreover, women and children are 14 times more likely to die than men during a disaster (WEDO-IUCN n.d.). Adaptive capacities such as swimming and climbing trees are culturally stigmatized for women, making them more vulnerable in conditions of flooding and coastal disasters. As uncertainties in climate are increasing, and disasters are more frequent and dramatic calling for immediate action, gradual and slow moving environmental stressors are most often neglected.

For example, a recent visit to the Arnala fishing village, a peri-urban coastal community on the outskirts of Mumbai, revealed interesting details about the gendered nature of work in the fishing industry. Men are responsible for all work at sea, as well as more technical jobs such as working in the ice factory, boat building, managing the jetty and ferry services, and making fishing nets. Women take up all other responsibilities once the catch is off-loaded, like sorting, drying or cleaning, and selling of fish.

Men at work at the Arnala fishing Society, making and mending ropes; Photo credit: WRI India

Men at work at the Arnala fishing Society, making and mending ropes; Photo credit: WRI India

On days when boats are not at sea or the catch is insufficient, women leave their homes as early as 2 am, travel to fishing docks in other parts of the city (sometimes as far as 85-95 km away) to buy fish at wholesale prices, and then come back to sell at the Arnala market at a marginal profit. Due to various climatic and urbanization stresses, the quantity of fish being caught at Arnala has been decreasing over the years, increasing the burden of procurement on women. Women cannot go out to sea, for cultural reasons, nor are they trained for skilled jobs in the industry, like net making or working in the ice factory, delineating other subsistence tasks to them.

The Arnala story is not one of disaster management, or post-disaster survival mechanisms, but an everyday burden of poverty that is being borne by women workers impacted by variations in their livelihoods due to environmental stresses. The extent of vulnerability and impacts of climate risks on people in peri-urban coastal communities must be studied further. Several examples from around the world show that women’s empowerment and gender equality are critical components in managing climate change and affecting a sustainable future.

As part of the World Resources Institute (WRI), we are currently involved in developing an action research project in the Arnala village, to understand how climate variability and urbanization affect the lives and livelihoods of those living in coastal peri-urban villages, making them more vulnerable to natural and everyday disasters. While information at this stage of the project is anecdotal, it reveals a clear need to gather gender-segregated data on vulnerability to climate risks. Moreover, existing adaptive capacities by gender, age, class and caste, vary based on cultural and social structures; in order to better understand the challenges both risk assessments and capacities must be mapped based on different interest groups. Finally, a differential approach to developing urban planning strategies may be taken up, to augment the adaptive capacities of different vulnerability groups within a community.

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