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Climate change 'disproportionately' burdens women and girl children with water distress

By Ayesha Khan, Garbhit Naik, Mansee Bal Bhargava* 

The Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC findings emphasize on the impacts, adaptation and vulnerability of climate change, with recommendations for urgency of immediate and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. 
All climate change reports globally reveal insights into increased climate extremes, heightened vulnerability, and the emergence of a humanitarian crisis driven by migration and water-related challenges. The repercussions for Southeast Asia and India are extreme, with water crisis causing a substantial 2% GDP loss in country like India, while historical emission patterns posing unique adaptation challenges. 
With this background, the Wednesdays.for.Water conversation titled, ‘Climate Change induced Water Distress’ presented a compelling exchange of ideas featuring Sucharita Sen and Anamika Barua as speakers and Devesh Belbase as a discussant last year after celebrating the World Women’s Day and World Water Day in March. The conversation wove around a tapestry of global climate dynamics and their significant impact on local communities. 
Anamika Barua is a Professor of Ecological Economics at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in the Indian institute of Technology Guwahati with a specialization in environment and economics. Sucharita Sen is a Professor at the Centre for the study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences in Jawaharlal Nehru University with a specialization in natural resource and rural livelihoods. Devesh Belbase is a Program Coordinator at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Bangkok. The session was moderated by Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava. The session video is available here
The discussion kicked off with a fundamental query: "How do you perceive the transition from the global scenario to the local context in climate change induced water distress?" 

Biased development decisions and unequal distress

Anamika unravelled a nuanced exploration, pivoting around the critical themes of mitigation and adaptation in the context of climate change-induced water distress. The point of reference was the IPCC Report 2022, an extensive collaboration involving 800 researchers over six years. The report emphatically underscores the link between human activities and the warming of the earth.
Focusing on the local ramifications, the case of Majuli in Assam is a stark illustration of prolonged floods impacting the region. A vivid portrayal of the tangible consequences of climate change on communities dismisses the notion that climate change is a distant intangible threat. 
The intersectionality of climate change often points towards impacting health, well-being, displacement, climate migration, water conflicts at various scales, and gender-based violence. The inadequacy of infrastructure, encompassing public health facilities, transportation, energy grids, and water treatment, further exacerbate the challenges.
The Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC in addition to the physical/ natural science also focusses on the social aspect of climate change, emphasizing the need to pay attention at the vulnerable groups along with the hazards and systems that are directly exposed to it. 
For example, biophysical and socio-economic factors are explored, with a vulnerability index of states in India. The unsustainable flow of water, both physically and virtually is highlighted as a critical consideration. 
From the gender perspective, there is a disproportionate burden on the women and girl children. Women, responsible for securing water and food, become victims of gender-based violence when family members fall ill due to contaminated sources, adding a poignant layer to the climate change narrative.
There is an intricate relationship between disaster and development. Development is often challenged by a resultant crisis turning into a disaster. This calls for a recovery strategy and a possibility for radical change. 
Development can give rise to distress that, with right approach towards environment and community, can yield better outcomes. An integrated approach to climate adaptation and mitigation needs embracing in development. Also, rejecting the notion of two separate paths of climate adaptation and mitigation. 
The developing countries takes a dual stand on climate change. First, the per capita emission is low, so there's no international pressure to sign emission reduction agreements. Second, India claims self-sufficiency, asserting its ability to address its needs despite past challenges. The infrastructure choices play crucial role in development as well as climate change. Energy-efficient infrastructure to reduce coal dependence and align with IPCC mitigation strategies is crucial. However, in places like Hyderabad and metro cities, energy-inefficient constructions contribute to unnecessary coal consumption. 
In the developing world, the political/ diplomatic narratives reflect the impact of western/ developed world activities/ developments on the environment which is undeniable. However, as developing nations strive for progress and climate change poses a challenge, it is all the more important that we learn and leapfrog the mistakes of the developed world. 
Anamika concluded with the concept of ‘Green Growth’ to ensure continued development while safeguarding the environment. Women have a crucial role in moving towards the green growth. 
When women have access to resources, they gain the bargaining power to voice their environmental concerns. Her insights served as a guide through the complexities of climate change impacts and gender with urge towards actionable steps in the face of a changing world. 

Riverscapes and genderscapes: upstream and downstream 

Sucharita commenced her talk by reiterating the perspective that goes beyond the visible symptoms experienced by the locals, positioning climate change as the backdrop against which the foreground issues are manifested. The dimensions of transboundary governance with every river being a transboundary entity, the governed populace, and notably, the often-overlooked voices of women form an intricate web of impacts.
There is profound interconnection of the river with the lives of those residing along the river. Gender theories explain the norms that govern the river communities and shape their interactions with the riverscape. The concept of gendered spaces needs induction into the river discourses for illustrating how lived-in spaces influence gender biases. 
In agriculturally dominated areas, where land is a pivotal livelihood component, women often face suppression. River valleys have a fertile land and agricultural labour demand is high, hence the high value of land property rights is highly skewed in favour of men. 
In contrast, the rugged or mountainous areas, that are often at the upstream of rivers, are less constricting towards gender due to the movement of men towards river valleys. Historically, this created a patriarchal heartland and the migration of men from rugged hills, resulting in muted patriarchies and women led landscape management in upland hills.
For example, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh representing the upstream regions show large number of women land owners and farmers. Despite favourable conditions, women face challenges due to entrenched gender roles. 
The entrenchment is marked dividing upper-caste and rich individuals from lower-caste and poor communities. Flood perception, attitude toward embankments, and gender roles during crises vary significantly.

Riverscapes and genderscapes: proximity to river

Like the upstream and downstream, the concept of gendered spaces also affects the communities located close and away from the river. As the spatial distinction accentuates the broader gender divide that plays out in the intricacy between societal structures and natural landscapes.
The spatial and class divide delineates the experiences of river-dwelling communities. Those living close to the river, dependent on its ever-changing dynamics, represent the poorest of the poor. They face the uncertainties of floods, erosion, and the shifting river course, possessing only transient defacto rights. 
Despite adversities, their high adaptive skills mark a profound acceptance of the river as a 'way of life.' In contrast, the further sides of embankments, settled agriculture thrives, fuelled by the river's resources. Here, property rights are defined, and protection from the river's unpredictability becomes a defining feature. 
Two critical concerns emerge from here. Firstly, focusing solely on communities near the river risks pitting poor women against poor men, both grappling with disempowerment. Secondly, a universal perception among women, regardless of geographical location, emerges – a pervasive lack of agency to voice concerns that could bring about meaningful change.
Drawing parallels in social equity and gender issues across countries, hint potential solidarities for transboundary river management. The need to recognize that flood management is not a homogenous issue; altering river flows can disproportionately impact those living directly with the river needs highlighting in the policy and people domains. 
Addressing erosion and shifting river courses become central concerns within the ambit of transboundary river management. This distress increases with the increase in natural disasters due to climate change. 
Sucharita concluded by saying, “Disasters dilute gender divisions, but post-disasters sharpen them.” 

Discussion

The session drew attention to the convergence of the natural and the social landscape, emphasizing the multiplicity of patriarchy. The spatial logic underpinning gender constructs became the highlight of the session. 
Micro-evidence painted a nuanced picture revealing a diluted gender divide in upstream areas like Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh, while sharper divides persist in downstream regions like Assam and Bangladesh. This confirms the multiplicity of patriarchies, emphasizing their qualitative differences rather than fitting into simplistic categories of strength or form. 
The nuanced experiences of women, marked by the inability to voice concerns despite better education, reveal the intricate layers that contribute to the complexity of societal structures. 
It is clear that understanding and addressing these nuances are essential for crafting effective strategies that resonate with the diverse challenges faced by different communities. The session drew following recommendations:
  • Climate-induced water stress in hilly areas: There is a need to correct resource allocation, focusing more on hilly areas. For example, the Water Shed Management Program of Manipur aiming to integrate environmental management with poverty reduction.
  • Adaptation versus mitigation: There is a need to clearly distinguish between adaptation and mitigation, highlighting the economic perspective. The lack of investment in both areas by developing nations calls for redefining adaptation strategies importantly as water management is falls more within this domain.
  • Gender matters: The commonalities in river-related challenges and importantly gender issues, for example in Bangladesh and India, need more research and outreach to both the policy and the people to ensure water justice towards access and distribution to the affected communities.
  • Groundwater challenges in South Asia: There is a need to look deeper into the surface water management for drinking purposes and improving water use efficiency as preventive measures against climate change impacts on groundwater.
The session concluded with a comprehensive discussion on exploring diverse perspectives, highlighting the urgency of addressing climate crisis collaboratively, and rethinking development strategies and impacts.
---
 *Ayesha Khan is junior fellow at WforW Foundation. Garbhit Naik is independent scholar and senior fellow at ED(R)C Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation. Mansee Bal Bhargava is entrepreneur, researcher, educator, speaker, mentor, Environmental Design Consultants and WforW Foundation, Ahmedabad (www.mansee.in, www.edc.org.in, www.wforw.in).
***
Wednesdays.for.Water is an initiative of the WforW Foundation, a think tank, built as a Citizens Collective. The idea of Wednesdays.for.Water is to connect the water worries and wisdom with the water workers through dialogues, discussions, and debates. The objective is to get in conversations with policy makers, practitioners, researchers, academicians besides the youth towards water conservation and management. The other team members of Wednesdays.for.Water are, Monica Tewari, Proshakha Maitra, Harshita Sehgal, and Monami Bhattacharya (ED(R)C-Ahmd), Dr Fawzia Tarannum (Climate Reality India), Ganesh Shankar (FluxGen-Blr), Prof Bibhu P Nayak (TISS-Hyd), and counting. The Wednesdays.for.Water is reachable at wednesdays.for.water@gmail.com and WforW Foundation is reachable at hellowforw@gmail.com and hello@wforw.in. The WforW Foundation social media are reachable at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn

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