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Climate change: A feminist issue

Feature 0617 Angelina Anderson In Funafuti Tuvalu
Photo: Devi Lockwood. Angelina Anderson in Funafuti, Tuvalu (far right)

In Tuvalu, climate change is a feminist issue.

Asita Moloti has been leading workshops on gender equality and climate change in the tiny nation of Tuvalu since 2004. “While men’s and women’s lives are both impacted [by climate change], they are impacted differently,” Moloti said. “We have learned that women are more at risk than men.”

Following traditional roles, Tuvaluan women are responsible for cooking, monitoring water usage, and managing family welfare with whatever resources are available.

“Caring roles for immediate and extended families within the homes are more difficult during frequent shortage of water,” Moloti said. “Women’s workload of primary responsibility to feed the crowd on many occasions, including during mobilization in any disaster situation, could be doubled.”

Water shortages and intensified storms have become a more frequent fact of life over the past 20 years, as climate change has gradually destroyed some of the basic features of the environment that Tuvaluans used to rely on. 

Moloti’s workshops, sponsored by SPC (Secretariat to the Pacific Community), focus on educating Tuvaluans about gender equality and their basic human rights, how to be prepared for and resilient to climate change, and principles of sustainability. About 40 people have attended from each of Tuvalu’s eight outer island communities.

Tuvalu is a low-lying coral atoll nation in the Pacific, about eight degrees south of the equator. The highest point is only 4 meters above sea level. With a population just shy of 11,000, Tuvalu is one of the smallest and most remote countries on the planet. These facts combine to make Tuvalu one of the most vulnerable locations to the effects of climate change. It is also an example of how women disproportionately shoulder the impacts of climate change.  

Since 1993, a tide gauge at the main wharf has taken regular measurements. In recent years the sea has risen at a steady 4mm per year. While that might sound like a small amount, this change has dramatic impacts on Tuvaluans’ access to freshwater.

All the water for Tuvalu’s residents comes from the rain. Each home has a water tank attached to a corrugated iron roof by a gutter. This rainwater is boiled for drinking and also used to wash clothes and dishes, and for bathing.

This wasn’t always the case. In the past, Tuvalu had a freshwater lens; Tuvaluans could dig a shallow well and have access to potable water. Many roofs were thatched.

Tauala Katea, acting chief meteorological officer in Tuvalu, told me that in 2000, Tuvaluans living in the outer islands noticed that their taro and pulaka crops were suffering. “The root crops seemed rotten and the size was getting smaller and smaller,” he said.

Taro and pulaka, two starchy staples of Tuvaluan cuisine, are grown in pits dug underground. This crop failure was the first indication that something was wrong.

After a period of research, the culprit was found to be saltwater intrusion. “That is all linked to sea level rise,” Katea said.

The last 20 years have marked a period of dramatic change in the Tuvaluan way of life. Thatched roofs and freshwater wells are a thing of the past. “We are no longer dependent on underground water,” Katea said. “The common areas where people depend on and fetch their fresh water out of it have become salty. So they just fill it up with rubbish.”

The contamination of Tuvalu’s freshwater lens makes Tuvaluans, especially Tuvaluan women, vulnerable in times of drought.

“Women are the most affected by climate change because women mostly do all the work: cleaning, cooking, planting,” Angelina Anderson, a Tuvaluan in her mid-twenties, told me. “And plus, they have to take care of their children,” she said. “If there’s no water, [the women] worry a lot.”

The last prolonged drought hit Funafuti, Tuvalu’s capital, in 2011. “We were suffering,” Anderson remembers. At the time Anderson’s middle daughter, Siulai, was three months old.

“No water to bathe the baby, no water to wash the clothes ... we just swim in the sea, come back, dry ourselves. We only save the water to drink and cook the food,” Anderson remembered.

“[Women’s] caring roles for immediate and extended families within the homes are more difficult during frequent shortage of water,” Moloti said. “Home gardenings for quality, nutritious meals are difficult due to salinity of soil and disturbing weather patterns.”

“The droughts not only affect the people but also affect the taro plants,” Anderson said. “Our land is not healthy. [It’s] not like Fiji, [where] if you plant some things they can grow by themselves. [In Tuvalu] we have to add water, cultivate it, and fertilize it. It’s very hard if [there’s] not water. We depend on the food from the shops if there’s no other options.”

Misikata, a primary school teacher on the outer island of Nukufetau, is concerned about the impact that climate change has on her community’s health.

“We usually get water from rain,” Misikata told me. “And when we fetch water from our tank … [in the drought] it was all empty. We depend on our underground well, and we also found [the] problem that the underground well water [was] salty. And that’s making us very devastated,” she said. “Some of us got sick and go to the hospital and get some medicines, and some even [were] transferred to the main hospital in the capital that is in Funafuti.”

Misikata’s pigs, another staple of Tuvaluan cuisine and life, also suffered from a lack of food and water. Even the coconut trees weren’t bearing fruit. It was “very hard to find anything to drink,” she said.

Imported food is now commonplace, even in times when there isn’t drought. During my month living in Tuvalu (December 2014 to January 2015), I saw lots of imported rice, tinned corned beef, a handful of imported carrots and apples, the occasional local papaya, bananas, and many creative uses for custard powder.

“We mostly depend on imported foods.” Katea said. “It is hard. It’s the only way out. We can try to adapt to climate change, all these changes,” he said.

King tides and storm surges are another cause for concern. The king tides started around 2000, the same time when root crops started to suffer from saltwater intrusion. “People experience a swell of currents of the king tide. It’s spreading more inland and further towards households,” Katea said. “Here in the Meteorological Office, our surroundings, during king tide, will cover with seawater.”

A king tide occurs when the Earth, moon, and sun align in their orbit, combining to create the highest tide of the year. During the king tide in Tuvalu, water bubbles out of the ground.

“[The water] has spread up and inundated most of the low-lying areas. Year by year you can see that there is an increase in a trend. It covers further inland. [This is] a new experience for us,” Katea said.

Another effect of climate change is migration. For the last three years Anderson has lived in Suva, Fiji, with her three kids, ages 4, 7, and 8. Her husband, Sokotia, is getting his bachelor’s degree in management at University of the South Pacific. “My husband got a scholarship and we had to come here,” she said. Sokotia’s fees are covered by the New Zealand government.

After her husband finishes his studies this November, Anderson and her family plan to move back to Tuvalu. Soon after, they hope to migrate again and apply for New Zealand citizenship.

Still, it is hard for Tuvaluans to leave their ancestral islands. Anderson doesn’t reckon that many people in her extended family will apply to emigrate.

“My brothers and sisters are all there [in Funafuti]. Auntie too. And Uncle. I don’t think they are moving, because it’s very hard to move,” she said. “My mother and father [who have passed away] are resting there [in Funafuti]. It’s very hard to leave them.”

For Tuvaluans who choose to stay in their country, it’s a matter of learning to adapt to and live with certain changes. Though she is now a master’s student in international development at Monash University in Australia, the gender and climate change trainings that Moloti helped start are ongoing.

“Gender and climate justice is about including everyone––especially the most vulnerable people’s experiences and ideas––to inform and shape climate policies and negotiations,” Moloti said. “If we leave out half of the population in our dealings, then we only have half of the population to deal with the issues.”

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