Saturday, March 17, 2012

Girls' Life in the Changing Climate: Stories From the North of Pakistan

As the world celebrated International Women's Day, my thinking goes back to the time of my childhood I spent in my remote village -- a beautiful green and mountainous land in the north of Pakistan.

I remember women and little children getting up before sunrise and help their families in fields during the sowing and harvesting seasons. Taking care of livestock was in addition to what women and younger girls do in looking after little kids at home. After sending children (usually boys) to schools, women and young girls used to go out and fetch water in the hilly areas with water pans on their heads. Those who had well or hand pump at home were although free from this hard work, but often give company to other women in their way for daily chitchat and asking about each other.

Women living in the uphill areas and belonging to much poorer communities had even harder life by collecting fuel wood in nearby forest for cooking purpose and burning woods to keep houses warm during winter. Time continued to move on, muddy roads turned to paved, new schools started, but life of girls and women remained same, even harder today in the changing climate.
The day our government announced new water supply schemes for our villages gave some relaxation to women that they won't fetch water in hilly areas anymore. At least they would have some time to relax in their day long work at homes and in fields. For years, the nearby spring water supplied water to the households through water pipes. Those families without a water connection still had the chance to go neighboring houses and fill their water pans from the taps installed outside homes. We had enough water for everyone.

Many years water remained sufficient. However, in recent years difficulties surrounded our villages again. Whenever I go back to my village now, I saw women and little children again traveling in hilly areas in search of water. Someone would see it quite strange that a woman having water pan on her head is walking on a track where water pipeline also passes through. However this is because of drying up water sources and leaving pipelines without any water to come through.

As a temporary solution, government fixed a time to supply water -- two hours per day, so the spring water could store in uphill water tank and become enough to flow downward. As the water continued to dry up, households now wait two to three days for water to come for two hours only. The result is obvious -- again the same difficulty for girls and women -- take water pan on head and go out to fetch water in hills. Water pipes have started rusting or broken and often people don't ask government to repair them because they know there is no water to come in.

Asking a woman why they have such difficulties in life or would they ever get rid of such hardships in life will only give a common response -- "this is our fate." People know rain patterns have changed and summers have become hotter than what they had in the past. But, they don't know why this is happening. And this is not only a water to fetch. In many uphill areas, where women also collect fuel wood from nearby forest, now travel more and far due to declining forests. Life, in 20-30 years, has simply become harder for many girls and women living in such uphill areas.

It is also a fact that women and girls of many rural areas spend their whole life within a house, get married at earlier age and continue same life in a new home. It would be hard to imagine for many those who live in developed part of the world that girls of this part of the developing world still fetch water instead of going to schools. In fact they don't know what climate change is. They don't know it's a new phenomenon in their lives which has rooted in many other socio-economic hurdles, enough to make their lives less empowered. It is not only the food they get, it is their choice how they want to live.

The international community, as it celebrated International Women's Day this March, still needs to understand this new phenomena of gender mainstreaming with the changing climate. They should know how such stories of girls and women continue to emerge from hills and remain unheard.

This blog was originally published in the Huffington post.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

From the Indus to the Mississippi, Climate Change Touches Us All

As we reflect on 2011, a year of extreme weather all over the world, my thoughts have turned back to a very strange summer I experienced not long ago.

That summer, I met a government employee who was working in his office and received a frantic call from his wife. "The flood water is coming," she said.

At first, he didn't take much notice. Occasional floods are normal in our part of the world, where heavy rains come every year and help irrigate the crops.

It was only later, when he returned to his town and saw his home disappearing underwater, that he understood the world he knew had suddenly and irrevocably changed.

This story took place in Pakistan in 2010. But around the world, wherever you are, chances are good that you have lived through your own weather disaster. And if not, you may soon.

A report last fall from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us that because of global warming, we can expect to see more and more catastrophic weather such as heat waves and heavy rains. For many of us, this news is not a surprise. The reality of climate change is catching up to us, and severe weather has become an increasingly common part of our lives.

In Pakistan, the 2010 flooding was an unprecedented disaster. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called the event a "slow-motion tsunami." One-fifth of the nation was covered in water, an area the size of England. Nearly 2,000 people died, 20 million were affected and 1.7 million homes were destroyed.

These events would have been traumatic enough; but last year, the floods returned." Unusually heavy monsoon rains brought flash floods that drove millions of people into poverty -- and international aid has been scarce.

I know many of you who are reading this live far from Pakistan. But in a fundamental way, our experience is the same whether we lived through the rains in my country or the famine in East Africa. Because of climate change, we have heightened our risk of disasters like the ongoing drought in the American South, or last spring's dramatic rainstorms that flooded the Mississippi River.

We are part of the same experience if we lived through events like last year's torrential rains over China that forced thousands of people from their homes, or the heat wave that crippled Russia two years ago. We have all reached a "new normal" -- but there is nothing normal about it.

During the Pakistan floods, I met people who saw their homes go underwater in an afternoon -- like the government employee who received a sudden call in his office. I met people who used to live comfortable lives who were standing in line to receive food. And I met others who would rather go hungry than accept the humiliation of charity.

I met local villagers who thought extreme weather was a sign they had done something wrong. They had never heard of carbon pollution or the greenhouse effect, so the only cause they could imagine was that God was punishing them for their sins.

That's the moment I learned that education must be the first step. For me, that means spending time traveling to remote villages to talk about extreme weather and climate change. I explain that bad weather has always been with us, but we expect global warming to make it far more frequent and more dangerous. Teaching people that their experience is part of a larger story is a way of showing them they are not alone.

The people I meet in Pakistan do not always accept climate change science right away. In that sense, they are no different than people elsewhere in the world. But it's clear to me that around the globe, there is a growing acceptance of the reality we face -- and an increasing readiness to find solutions.

Someday soon, Pakistan will recover from the floods -- just as I know the rest of the world will learn to confront the threat of extreme weather and climate change. This is an experience we all share, and it is a problem we can only solve together.

This blog was originally published on Huffington post.