Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time, and much of the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) is situated in complex climate zones, where global warming is leading to rapid desertification, water scarcity and increasing sea levels.
The economic, human and physical effects of climate change are increasingly apparent everywhere in the world. In the Middle East, especially in the summer months, it creates significant economic disruptions, food security threats and weakened public health systems. Hospitals bear the brunt of providing care to people enduring the health consequences of climate change. This has a ripple effect on poverty and inequality, migration and displacement.
In March this year, the UAE hosted the region's first Mena Climate Week, in Dubai. The event offered a space for governments, private sector leaders, financial institutions, civil society organisations and activists to discuss climate-related issues and solutions. Key discussions included building on the outcomes of last year's climate conference in Glasgow (Cop26), building resilience against climate-related risks, the shift to a low-emission economy and forging partnerships to resolve urgent challenges. Discussions at the event also involved accelerating co-operation and incorporating climate action into the global Covid-19 pandemic recovery. This has led to the introduction of green packages centred on environmental, regulatory and fiscal reforms.
With this year's climate conference, Cop27, to be held in Egypt, barely three months away, there is an increased focus on the region’s transition to clean energy. However, even though climate change is a global problem that affects both men and women, more female participants can ensure that key challenges are addressed and managed effectively.
Women are increasingly more vulnerable than men to the effects of climate change. In villages and rural areas, women regularly act as guardians of natural and household resources. Women working in these circumstances make decisions that have an effect on the environment, whether it be while cooking for their families (selecting food and fuel), as farmers (influencing soil carbon emissions) or as consumers (making purchase decisions). When these resources are low, climate change becomes a stressor that intensifies women’s vulnerabilities.
Besides dependence on access to resources, women are affected more than men because women in several areas have limited access to basic human rights, such as the ability to freely move and acquire land. Often they face systemic violence that escalates during periods of instability. These factors, and many more, mean that women are more likely to live in poverty than men. And as climate change intensifies, indicators show that women will suffer disproportionately more. That said, the 2015 Paris climate agreement includes certain arrangements to guarantee that women acquire the required support to cope with the threats of climate change.
The disproportionate impact of climate issues on women can be seen through a number of further factors. Socio-cultural norms and childcare responsibilities prevent women from migrating or looking for refuge in other places, or finding employment or continuing to work when disaster strikes. Such situations are likely to place an added burden on women, who, for example, then have to travel for prolonged periods to obtain consumable water and/or wood for fuel. Climate change, which can often directly lead to conflict, worsens the problem. Ismail Serageldin, a former World Bank vice president, calculated back in 1995 that “the wars of the next century will be over water”.
The German Federal Academy for Security Policy identified climate change as an accelerator for conflicts in the entire near and Middle East region. Although climate change has not yet seen the outbreak of war in the region, any future outbreak can lead to devastating impacts on women. LaShawn R Jefferson, Programme Officer of Women's Human rights at the Ford Foundation, believes that women during conflict are likely to experience an increase in domestic violence, sexual intimidation, human trafficking and rape.
Regardless of these vulnerabilities, women should not solely be seen as victims of climate change, but also as active, helpful mediators and advisors regarding rightful and viable solutions to environment issues.
Throughout history, women have advanced knowledge and skills linked to water harvesting and storage, food preservation and rationing, and natural resource management. In southern Iraq, for example, marshland women traditionally possess important ecological understanding of the marshlands, while also playing a key role as local water managers. Such valuable knowledge equips the women to advise on adjustive policies that prevent placing the marsh ecosystem, a rich cultural heritage, at greater risk. With such a vast body of knowledge of the environment, the marshland women can greatly contribute to new strategies for climate-resilient, sustainable livelihoods.
To this day, however, women's participation in key discussions in the environment has often been prevented by the patriarchal nature of some societies in the region. From the formal economy to government, women’s representation and participation rates in the Middle East are some of the lowest in the world.
Studies show that the process to integrate female participation in the decision-making process has been quite slow in recent years. This is highly concerning, given how fast climate change is affecting the world. The February 2022 IPCC climate report elaborates on how the negative effects of climate change are impacting our planet much faster than scientists predicted less than a decade ago.
Invitations to public events such as climate conferences, where women can be vocal about ecological realities, are crucial. Such platforms help amplify women’s voices as they speak about current research projects to tackle climate change as well as what further work needs to be done to tackle the effects of a warming planet. Eventually, discussions like these can place women in higher positions, leading us in the right direction needed for required change.
Besides involvement in climate decision making, participation in formulating effective policies, equal space and resources for both men and women in climate projects must be ensured. Climate finance too should be made accessible to men and women. There should be funding in multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral and participative climate change action plans, to incorporate gender-related concerns and develop the abilities, unique knowledge and viewpoints of women. Such measures would not only strengthen their climate resilience but also help make women powerful forces of climate mitigation.