Wetlands and Climate Change: Perspectives of a Female Pastoralist
By Mike O’maera
Wetlands are indispensable for human survival. The countless benefits or ecosystem services that they offer humanity, for instance, freshwater supply, food and building materials, biodiversity, flood control, groundwater recharge, and climate change mitigation make wetlands one of the world’s most productive environments.
Further, Wetlands allow the interaction between water, soil, vegetation and light mostly all the year round. The depth of the water is such that it allows photosynthesis to occur, making wetlands useful life-supporting ecosystems. This association between water, light, soil, and vegetation characterises various wetlands in Kenya, known for their avifauna and fisheries resources. They are sites of exceptional biodiversity, and have enormous social and economic value. However, studies after studies demonstrate that wetlands’ quality continues to decline in most regions of the world hence increased compromise of the services that people depend on for survival. Viewed as wastelands, they continue to be impacted and degraded and lost due to pressure from agricultural and development activities.
We celebrate World Wetlands Day each year on 2 February to raise awareness about wetlands, which also marks the anniversary of the Convention on Wetlands – the Ramsar Convention- that was adopted as an international treaty in 1971. Kenya is party to the Ramsar Convention and as such is under an obligation to take legal and policy measures to protect its wetlands inclusive of the actions stipulated in the convention. In addition, the country has laws and policies that seek to address the conservation and proper utilization of wetlands. These include the environmental management and coordination Act, the Water Act and the Wildlife (Conservation and Management) Act.
While there are many efforts by actors to mitigate the effects of climate change, the opportunities to find viable solutions still abound. Gradual increases in temperatures coupled with increasing climate variability and extreme events produce nonlinear and often unpredictable ecological feedbacks, which in turn interact with natural resource management practices to alter the functioning of ecosystems and social institutions (Nelson 2005; Christensen et al. 2013). The wetlands are one of the most critical climate ecosystems that will continually need the support of all players including philanthropies interested in climate change. Among the people most vulnerable to these changes will be those who depend directly on local ecosystems for their livelihoods (O’Brien and Leichenko 2000).
Effects of Climate Change on Pastoralist Women
Pastoralist communities across Africa particularly East African communities face complex challenges because of climate change and gender inequality. These communities are made up of nomadic or semi-nomadic herders who rely on their livestock for a living. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007) confirms that the effects of climate change, such as increased frequency and intensity of droughts and floods, are exacerbating existing problems and weakening these communities’ resilience, particularly women. They also predicted that, in some of these countries, agricultural production could decline by as much as 50 per cent by 2020. Changes in weather patterns have a significant impact on grazing lands, water sources, and food availability for livestock, resulting in augmented poverty.
It is critical to recognise that climate change effects are not gender neutral. Women in pastoralist communities are frequently in charge of household maintenance, responsible for duties such as fetching water and firewood, both of which are becoming increasingly scarce because of the effects of climate change. Consequently, women must travel longer distances to find these resources, leaving them with less time to engage in other economic activities like trading.
Furthermore, the frequent exclusion of women in pastoralist communities from decision-making processes, including resource management and climate change response deteriorates it all. This exclusion is reinforced by patriarchal societal norms that discriminate against women, leaving their voices and perspectives unheard in the development of policies and programmes to address the effects of climate change.
Concurrently, the effects of climate change are contributing to an increase in climate-induced issues such as early marriages, in which young girls are married off to reduce household burden or as a coping mechanism in the face of economic hardship. This practice denies young girls’ opportunities and liberties while perpetuating the cycle of poverty and vulnerability. FGM is also a common practice in pastoralist communities, sustained by patriarchal societal and cultural dogma. Women’s limited access to resources and services, such as education, healthcare, and financial services, in pastoralist communities is also a major factor.
These effects coupled with being a “woman” have serious consequences on the well-being and future of women living in pastoralist communities in East Africa hence the need for a gender-responsive approach. A gender-responsive approach acknowledges that climate change impacts are not gender-neutral, and that their effects on women would differ from men’s. It also supports the importance of taking gender roles, responsibilities, and needs into account when developing policies and programmes to address the effects of climate change.
Gender-responsive policies and programmes, for example, should take into account women’s roles such as household maintenance, ensuring that they have access to safe and dependable sources of the basic resources. This would materialize through implementing water-harvesting technologies; executing microfinance initiatives that can assist women to start their own businesses to improve their economic status as well as forming community-based resource management committees that include equal representation and offer a platform for women’s voices.
In addition, interdisciplinary research that considers both the effects of climate change and gender dynamics is required. Such research will contribute to a better understanding of the complex interplay of these factors and would aid in shaping gender-responsive policies and programmes that address the needs and perspectives of women in pastoralist communities.
The larger philanthropy sector and particularly Family foundations and individual donors share a distinctive ability to deploy agile, responsive, flexible, and risk-tolerant ways that support high-value interventions directly and that can attract incremental funding from other sources. Regardless of what programs or areas philanthropy funds, climate change is likely to affect the issues they seek to address. The link between climate change and the marginalization of women is huge in the East African Region and philanthropy needs to prioritise this. Whether it focuses on de-carbonization or adaptation, funding climate change represents an opportunity for foundations to drive exponential impact during their lifetimes and beyond.
 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2007. Working Group contributions to the fourth assessment report. Fourth assessment report. Climate change 2007. Synthesis report. Summary for policymakers, p. 22.