Challenging inequality is at the heart of climate change adaptation

People won’t become more resilient to the impacts of climate change unless the underlying causes of their vulnerability are analysed and addressed.

Suzanne Fisher's picture
Insight by 
Suzanne Fisher
23 April 2013
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After the Asian tsunami in 2004 hit the Andaman and Nicobar islands, the destroyed houses needed to be rebuilt. But they weren’t just rebuilt with better materials. The rebuilt houses and assets became jointly owned by women.

“When that woman faces the next disaster, she has more power to negotiate with her brother or her husband and is far less vulnerable,” said Harjeet Singh, International Coordinator of Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Adaptation for Action Aid, who oversaw the project in the Andoman and Nicobar Islands.

Challenging power relations and inequality and upholding human rights might seem a long way off from adapting to climate change. But the logic is that people are vulnerable to climate change because of the unequal power structures in their society. When a disaster hits their communities they are more vulnerable, and it generally takes them longer to recover from the loss. 

Speaking at the 7th International Conference on Community-based Adaptation in Dhaka, Singh tied people’s vulnerability to shocks and stresses to three key factors: social exclusion, lack of access to resources and lack of assets and economic opportunities. If people’s social exclusion, due to race, sex or a number of other factors, was tackled, said Singh, as well as looking at building up their assets and resources, people would be far less vulnerable when the next disaster hits.

Similarly Christine Hunter, the Bangladesh country representative for UN Women said that if work focussed more on tackling the obstacles that stop women or indigenous groups from achieving their rights then they would be less vulnerable when the next disaster hit.

“Inequality can create vulnerability,” Hunter said. And women in Bangladesh generally live in a very unequal society. Most women in Bangladesh are employed in agriculture, although they generally don’t own the land they farm. As agriculture becomes increasingly affected by heavier seasonal rains or rising sea levels, women have fewer resources to draw on to adapt to the changes, compared to their husbands or brothers. “A man is more likely to own land, he may have a say over other resources that could earn him a living, or he might have better access to credit,” said Hunter.   

The irony of writing this in a five star hotel just after listening to a formal inauguration by the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, the most powerful woman in Bangladesh, doesn’t escape me.

Much of the literature on climate change and gender isn’t helping according to Hunter. She felt the discourse often set out women as victims vulnerable to climate change, or focussed on women’s instrumental role to support their families, but not on their own rights.

“If their ability to support their families is strengthened, according to the discourse, it helps everybody – especially households,” she said. “When we stay with those kinds of narratives we reinforce inequality. How can we on (the) one hand be painting them as victims and then on the other hand be saying that women have an equal right to shape decision at national or international levels? Those pictures don’t go very well together,” said Hunter.

Instead Hunter advocated a rights-based approach: “Rights focus on people as citizens and as people who can drive their own development and have the right to do that.”

Doesn’t this approach on rights and addressing inequalities require seismic shifts in power dynamics in most societies to succeed, I asked. Singh responded with a question: “Have other approaches worked? I don’t see any other approach having a lasting solution.”

Find out more about the 7th conference on community-based adaptation to climate change (CBA7). Read highlights from the first and second day of the conference.