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When the Bush Becomes a "Desert Shrub"

“It doesn’t rain here the way it used to.” That was a Senegalese woman’s observation, included in a new report on climate change released by the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO). The woman may not have access to the exact numbers—her country, for example, has experienced a 35 percent decline in rainfall since 1996—but she can certainly testify to the frequent droughts and the shorter growing season. And she’s the expert on how these chronic conditions affect her life.

WEDO worked with partners in Ghana, Bangladesh and Senegal to produce “Gender, Climate Change and Human Security,” which details the way disasters deliver their heaviest burdens to the world’s poorest—the women who comprise 70 percent of those living below the poverty line. In Bangladesh and Ghana, flooding produced most of these hardships. In Senegal, the women cope daily with long-standing desertification, which is turning land that has supported their families over generations into encroaching desert. “The water table is very deep,” reported Ndèye Faye, of the village of Kalom. “There is a lot of salt in the water and overall the water is of bad quality. It cannot even water our livestock. All of us women, we are very tired.”

The report documents a number of signs of progress in Senegal. A new constitution (2001) prohibits gender discrimination, and women are prominent in unions and political life. A woman prime minister was appointed in 2002. But change hasn’t reached daily life in the country’s rural areas, where women are responsible for 80 percent of agricultural production, with very limited resources. Many must walk long distances to find drinkable water. In better years, they might have earned a little money by growing out-of-season vegetables for market, or engaged in reforestation. Now, according to the report, such creative opportunities are often out of reach, “despite their willingness to do so.”

The report is a project of the Human Security Network, a group of “like-minded” countries whose foreign ministers conduct a dialogue on peace and development. To focus on groups vulnerable to problems associated with climate change, the network commissioned a series of studies, including one by UNICEF on children, another by a German research institute on environmentally forced migration, and WEDO’s on gender consequences.

WEDO adopted its country-based approach because, though there is a growing collection of data on broad aspects of how global climate change affects women, documentation of particular experiences is lacking. The report breaks ground by amassing much of the data and presenting some of the first country-specific case studies. WEDO intends to build up an empirical base of evidence to help effect policy change globally and, along with its local partners, at the national level in Senegal and other countries.

“Always, women are presented as victims in these discussions,” says Cate Owren, coordinator of WEDO’s Sustainable Development Program. “And women are suffering, but they are also coping with climate change right now. We need to learn how they manage and bring those lessons to the global policy makers.”

Ndèye Faye of Kalom told the research team that the women have found some relief now that there’s a tank truck that brings in water from other villages. Still, she said, “we have to limit our needs in water because it is an expensive commodity.”

In addition to water collection, drought and deforestation has made cooking a burdensome task. The government encourages the use of butane gas, but supplies don’t reach rural women. In the village of Gadiag, Satou Diouf explained:

The bush has now become a desert shrub in my area and there is nowhere to go to fetch wood. It is prohibited to cut acacia trees. If caught, one has to pay a fine. Every morning, we go to the bush with our bassinette to fetch cow dung for cooking. Unfortunately, during the dry season, it is rare to find foraging livestock. Therefore, we don’t have a choice but to go against the Department of Water and Forests and cut acacia trees.

One day, unable to find enough wood after a long search, I used some branches to cook. Since the wood was not enough, I cut my plastic bassinette in pieces to fuel the fire. My bassinette was gone before I finished cooking. Then I took the wooden bench where I was seated and cut it to feed the fire. That was not enough. I also had to use my bed sheet for the fire so the food could cook.

She ended up in tears when her mother-in-law refused to eat food cooked with contaminated, unhealthy fuel.

In addition to agriculture, Senegalese women dominate the fish-processing industry along the Atlantic shorelines. But erosion is destroying the industry infrastructure and many in these communities will have to be resettled.

Confronted with such obstacles, the women enthusiastically engage in programs that offer solutions. According to the report, entire villages often undertake reforestation, but “women are the ones who initiate it and are joined later by men and young people.”

For one program, ENDA (Environmental Development Action in the Third World), the Senegal-based partner of WEDO, selected three villages in an area of severe erosion and land degradation as experimental sites. Local women initiated the project to address the disappearance of arable land, water scarcity and the uprooting of trees and crops, among other problems. The women were active in building stone barriers to control the flow of rainwater.

According to the report, “the impact of that hard work was immediately visible—groundwater is recharged, water bodies are created, soils are stabilized, rain water flow is slowing down; the vegetation is regenerating and there is diversity in herbal surface.” The women now spend less time drawing water, their agricultural yields improved, and they “began trading herbal plants, which they had not done in a long time.”

(WEDO has launched Women Demand U.S. Action on Climate Change (WDACC) to mobilize U.S. women around such issues as greenhouse gas emissions and to encourage environmental activists to adopt gender-sensitive initiatives. Later this month, the campaign will exhibit at the upcoming National Organization for Women 2008 conference in Bethesda, Maryland).

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