PAKISTAN: Women are worst hit by climate change

Bushra Khaliq
General Secretary of Women Workers Help Line

Pakistan is among the countries which will be hit hardest in near
future by effects of climate change even though it contributes only a
fraction to global warming. The country is witnessing severe pressures
on natural resources and environment. This warning has recently come
from the mouth of Pakistan’s prime minister in a recent statement.
The PM[1] has alarmed the countrymen by disclosing that Pakistan is
the 12th most vulnerable country in the world, to environmental
degradation, would cost five per cent of the GDP every year.

Very few Pakistanis took such warnings serious. There is no media
uproar, no popular movement and no political clamoring over the issue.
Sad! The majority of the Pakistani policy makers have no time to think
about the horrifying picture of the future, caused by the worsening
climatic conditions. The country is busy fighting US-led war on
terrorism and now almost trapped in a complex political quagmire where
it has found itself fighting a war with itself. Therefore, very little
time planners find to apprise the people of Pakistan on the
repercussions of adverse climatic effects.

The climate experts in the country are hinting at severe water
scarcity saying that water supply, already a serious concern in many
parts of the country, will decline dramatically, affecting food
production. Export industries such as, agriculture, textile products
and fisheries will also be affected, while coastal areas risk being
inundated, flooding the homes of millions of people living in
low-lying areas.

Pakistan’s north eastern parts already experienced droughts in 1999
and 2000 are one such example that caused sharp declines in water
tables and dried up wetlands, severely degrading ecosystems. Although
Pakistan contributes least to global warming-one 35th of the world’s
average of carbon dioxide emissions-temperatures in the country’s
coastal areas have risen since the early 1900s from 0.6 to 1 degree
centigrade. Precipitation has decreased 10 to 15 per cent in the
coastal belt and hyper arid plains over the last 40 years[2] while
there is an increase in summer and winter rains in northern Pakistan.

Although Pakistan produces minimal chlorofluorocarbons and a little
sulphur dioxide emissions, thus making a negligible contribution to
ozone depletion and acid rain, it will suffer disproportionately from
climate change and other global environmental problems. Health of
millions would also be affected with diarrhoeal diseases associated
with floods and drought becoming more prevalent. Intensifying rural
poverty is likely to increase internal migration as well as migration
to other countries. Given the enormity of the impact, adaptation and
mitigation measures are critically important.

Pakistan’s eco system has suffered greatly due to climatic change;
one such example is that of Keti Bandar; one of the richest port in
the region of the coastal belt of Pakistan that lost privileges of
being at some point in time. The former port facilities bordered both
shores of the Indus River delta but have become submerged as a result
of coastal erosion, leaving only a thin, 2km long isthmus by way of a
land bridge to the mainland.

There was a time when it was known to be an area thriving on mangroves
ecosystem, rich with agriculture and boasting a busy seaport. Now the
landscape is barren and thatched houses dotted on mudflats. Water
logging and salinity is its major problem and the intruding sea has
almost eaten up the villages. Thousands of peasant families and fisher
folk community already had to migrate to other areas in search of
livelihood.

So grave is the situation now in the same region that cyclones often
visit the coastline and their intensity has increased many times more.
Poor peasant and fisher folk communities always hit hard by these
cyclones. The blame relies on the fact that the community residing in
Keti Bandar is threatened with global climatic change. The coastal
area is said to be most vulnerable to climate change with rising sea
surface temperatures and atmospheric water vapor causing an increase
in cyclone intensity and rainfall.

When it comes to climate change population does matter, particularly
for countries like Pakistan with an annual growth rate of 2.69
percent[4], will be the sixth most populous country. As poor families
struggle to survive, environmental degradation is going to be more
pervasive. Long-term sustainable development goals are disregarded in
favor of immediate subsistence needs, leaving vulnerable communities
specially women at the mercy of climate. Increased use of wood for
fuel, abusive use of land and water resources, in the form of
overgrazing, over fishing, depletion of fresh water and
desertification- are common in rural areas of Pakistan.

There seems to be no stopping the runaway population growth here in
Pakistan because birth control is often portrayed as anti-people. The
country’s political and religious leaders who could make a difference
are to blame. They have ignored the explosive population growth
completely. Birth control is a taboo topic in Pakistan. In our
culture, the larger the number of children, the stronger the family
feels. Poverty does not seem to matter. The mullahs (clerics) may not
like it.

The rural population has been kept illiterate in Pakistan. “Instead of
building schools we built armies. The feudal landowners saw to it that
the rural population is kept away from schooling. Mullahs declare
girls’ education to be un-Islamic. The reality is that even where
women want to practice birth spacing they face difficulty in accessing
the family planning services. They meet with a non-supportive
environment at home, and encounter misconceptions and misinformation
about the use of family planning.

At regional level, according to experts, by 2050, the Indian
subcontinent will have to support 350 million Pakistanis; 1.65 billion
Indians; 40 million Nepalese; 300 million Bangladeshis and 30 million
Sri Lankan. The total will be about 2.4 billion people. This was the
total population of the whole earth around 1950[5]. The strain on
resources in the region will be tremendous, and consequences
catastrophic. By then the glaciers in the Himalayas will be gone, the
monsoons will be erratic, sometimes too much or too little rain; new
uncontrollable diseases will have emerged. It will come overnight. We
will wake up, and find that all we had yesterday (food, water,
electricity) are gone.

This horrific picture is, no doubt, a matter of concern for the entire
population living in this part of world, but matter of urgency for the
marginalized sections especially women who will obviously worst and
first hit of the climate bomb. Need of the hour is to highlight the
gravity of the issue with focus on demanding security to the rights of
the poor and marginalized sections in the future policy planning with
regard to Climate Change .

In developing countries like Pakistan, women are already suffering
disproportionately; as a consequence of climate change. Local
environmentalists estimate that 70 per cent of the poor, who are far
more vulnerable to environmental damage, are women. Therefore, women
are more likely to be the unseen victims of resource wars and violence
as a result of climate change. We witnessed this phenomenon in years
1999 and 2000 when thousands of poor families had to flee from
drought-hit areas of Balochistan, the most backward province of
Pakistan. Women and children were seen the most suffered sections.

Like other poor countries, climate change is harder on women in
Pakistan as well, where mothers have to stay in areas hit by drought,
deforestation or crop failure. Many destructive activities against the
environment disproportionately affect them, because most women in
Pakistan are dependent on primary natural resources: land, forests,
and waters. In case of droughts they are immediately affected, and
usually women and children can’t run away. Men can trek and go looking
for greener pastures in other areas and sometimes in other countries
… but for women, they’re usually left on site to face the
consequences. When there is deforestation, when there is drought, when
there is crop failure, it is the women and children who are the most
adversely affected.

While women are the main providers of food in Pakistan, they face
barriers to the ownership and access to land. 67 percent of women are
engaged in agriculture related activities but only 1 per cent own
land. When hit by the negative impact of climate change, women lose at
the same time their livelihood means and their capacity to cope after
a disaster. As a result of climate change, domestic chores such as
collecting water and firewood become more burdensome and time
consuming. As girls commonly assist their mothers in performing these
tasks, there is less time left for school or any other economic
activity.

The recent data shows that due to climate change major crops yield in
Pakistan has declined by 30% (Lead, 2008). Experts are of the opinion
that Climate Change is enhancing the susceptibility of agriculture
zones to floods, drought and storms. It is pertinent to mention that
the agriculture is the single largest sector in Pakistan’s economy,
contributing 21 per cent to the GDP and employing 43 per cent of the
workforce (Lead, 2008) of which female are in majority.

There is a common perception that ‘it is men who are the farmers’.
Contrary to this perception, women in Pakistan produce 60-80 percent
of food consumed in the house (IUCN, 2007). In Pakistan, especially in
the mountainous regions, men out-migrate for livelihood opportunities
(from 50% to 63% of the households) (WB, 2005) and it is the women who
looks after the family’s agriculture piece of land along with many
other responsibilities. It is interesting to note how much work female
household members contribute outside their homes, but their work is
generally less visible and attracts less public recognition.

The rise in temperature is going to affect the farming communities in
Pakistan as a whole, but will have severe impacts on
individuals/households specially women, who are socially, politically
and economically more vulnerable.

Important to mention here is that Pakistan was one of the first
countries to ratify the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate
Change (UNFCCC) in 1994 and has also endorsed other related protocols
(Kyoto and Montreal) but its Climate Change policy is still in the
making. Experts are of the opinion that not much in terms of gender
should be expected from the forthcoming national policy on Climate
change, as responsive policies can only result when they come out of
forums that have equal gender representation along with the necessary
sensitivity.

National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) is a new mechanism of
the Government of Pakistan (GOP) which is trying to address the
disaster vulnerabilities of the communities living in hazardous
regions by keeping the gender sensitivities in mind. Since NDMA is a
new mechanism not much can be said about its programs at this point,
but if women are not involved in developing and monitoring important
policies and legislations, gender issues will go unnoticed.

In nutshell climate change could hamper the achievement of many of the
Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including those on poverty
eradication, child mortality, malaria, and other diseases, and
environmental sustainability. Much of this damage would come in the
form of severe economic shocks. In addition, the impacts of climate
change will exacerbate existing social and environmental problems and
lead to migration within and across national borders of Pakistan

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