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Climate change: Focussing on how the vulnerable can cope

With higher temperatures, unpredictable rainfall, and a potential sea level rise, entailing more frequent or more intense disasters, no part of the world will be safe from the impacts of the changing climate.

© FAO/G. Napolitano

7 December 2007, Rome - Today, many such disasters are already being witnessed with a heavy toll in terms of social, economic, and environmental consequences. But in what way would the massive shifts in the climate system feel and reflect on a human scale? What do big climatic changes mean for the small farmers in the field, who directly rely on natural resources for their daily food, livelihood and well-being? How would such vulnerable individuals be differently affected by a changing climate, and are there ways to improve their ability to cope?

These are questions FAO is gearing up to confront and strive to resolve, by examining and integrating the gender and equity aspects of climate change, and exploring how men and women farmers in the developing countries are differently affected by, and unequally able to live with the recurrent effects of climate variability and change, almost every day. FAO experts aim to advise governments on how to incorporate gender and equity concerns into their plans for adapting to the worsening impact of climate variability and change. Within the shifting strategic priorities for the future it is FAO’s responsibility today, more than ever, to put gender concerns right into the mainstream of all its work.

Not alike in vulnerability and ability

Underlying socio-economic conditions will in part shape how natural-resource dependent communities and individuals experience climate change. The ability to earn an income or obtain credit; access to and control over resources like land, water or seeds; and the education level are some of the socio-economic factors that determine a person’s ability to cope with the impacts of climate variability and change on food security and livelihoods.

But men and women often have different socio-economic conditions, because gender-based roles and responsibilities affect their options for earning a living, their access and rights to land and credit, their education levels, and other rights and duties. This means that men and women are not alike in terms of their vulnerability and their ability to prepare for or recover from shocks to their livelihoods. Climate change – a major shock – would impact men and women in different ways as they may not have access to the necessary tools and support to ensure that their livelihoods are sustainable.

Strategies to prepare for escalating impacts of climate variability and change that do not take into account the cultural and socio-economic differences among men and women, will simply fall short of addressing the needs, or incorporating the knowledge, of all those who are likely to be damaged.

FAO-funded research model

Research considering the gender aspects of climate change is only just emerging. However, disaster management research shows that women are more vulnerable than men to weather-related disasters. Also, in the wake of disasters, it has been found that women and men farmers possess distinct knowledge which contributes to recovery, and when outside assistance explicitly targets women as well as men, it tends to be more successful.

In order to gather more concrete information on the gender component of climate change, FAO Senior Officer Yianna Lambrou recently travelled to Andhra Pradesh, India, to speak with farmers. She initiated an FAO-funded research project with local NGO’s and research centres aiming to examine the gender dimension of farmers’ experiences with climate variability. Ultimately the objective is to develop a model for gathering knowledge and documenting what farmers know about coping in the short term with climate variability and in the long term with change, in order to establish the types of support they will need for withstanding impacts on their livelihoods in the long run.

Explaining some initial findings from her trip to India, Ms Lambrou, said: “We recorded farmers’ responses to drought, and observed a gender dimension, with men migrating and women taking on new responsibilities at home and in agricultural practices”. She added: “We have also started to study outside interventions and how they match communities’ needs, found examples of women attending government training and heard reports of training bolstering a community’s food security”.

The role women and their communities in the developing counties can play, has to be acknowledged and considered in formulating an international strategy to enable the most vulnerable in the field to deal best with the effects of climate variability and change, according to FAO, if we hope to alleviate its worst consequences. “Without addressing gender inequality in climate change adaptation policy, we simply risk making little progress in achieving the Millennium Development Goals and, thereby risk making the world’s most vulnerable people even more vulnerable”, said Marcela Villarreal, Director of FAO’s Gender, Equity and Rural Employment Division.

Next Steps

Addressing the gender component of climate change is gaining support from researchers and policymakers, as indicated by the first-time consideration of gender aspects in a portion of the 2007 assessment of climate change research, by the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

An eight-member official FAO delegation led by the Director-General, Jacques Diouf, is currently attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali (3-15 December 2007).