Friday, March 24, 2017

Women, Water and Pakistan: A Climate Change

After a short while in Pakistan, a few things are clear: in bustling Lahore, don't look out the front window and trust your driver, Islamabad is beautiful, calm and a delight, save for the traffic (again), and the brinksmanship between India and Pakistan is alive and well, although nowhere near the horrors of a few years ago. 

Those shows of force and the talks that ensue are increasingly about a resource that has both inundated and ignored Pakistan since before its inception. Indeed, water has either decimated lands and cities or fuelled their existence, dating back nearly 4000 years. The 2010 floods, the result of heavy monsoon rains, killed over 2000 people and affected the lives of 20 million more through their chaos and destruction. The combined waters from the rains and the Indus basin covered more than one fifth of Pakistan's total land, and it was estimated that the economic cost of the destruction was around US $43 billion. Unfortunately, little has been done since to shore up the collection of water through dams, or the reinforcement of a fragile water delivery system.

If the 2010 (and smaller 2011) floods are an indicator for times to come, Pakistan is undoubtedly a country suffering the most severe effects of climate change.  It depends almost entirely on the Indus river for water - a river seeing its source dry up from the rapidly melting Tibetan glaciers - and so the country has both a water shortage problem and a barely existing infrastructure to contain or exploit the power of severe floods. Earthquakes also form part of daily life: Pakistan sits over both the Indian and Eurasion tectonic plates, and as such lives with a regular stream of tremors (the country has had 10 earthquakes in the past 30 days). Certain ones, however, cause already stressed infrastructure to collapse entirely, as in 2005 where 80 000 people died and over a million lost their homes after a magnitude 7.6 hit the northern region of Kashmir. 

And so it is: with a population nearing a staggering two hundred million (the current census, last taken in 1998, will surely add to this estimate), only 39% arable land, much of it overused and damaged, and with a heavy reliance on the Indus river for irrigation and a diminishing water supply, Pakistan is taxed by the effects of climate change and hampered by a stagnant political state that has so far failed to fix its systems of harnessing, processing and delivering water.

The breakdown of these realities points to the gendered effects that climate change brings to the country. Women account for most of the vulnerable (or self-employed) agricultural labour force in Pakistan with a bewildering number of excessive hours worked (defined as over 50/week), often without renumeration. With diminishing job prospects in agriculture, little chance of upward mobility (explored below) and vast amounts of illiteracy, Pakistani women risk suffering devastating economical consequences due to water restrictions as an effect of climate change. Even rapid urbanization (currently at 3%, the fastest in South Asia) to the bustling cities of Lahore and Karachi has not resulted in a more educated populace working in formal or private sector jobs. Instead, urbanization has increased the amount of informal precarious labour, often by women, and often still with ties to rural homes, maintaining the links of kinship on which Pakistani culture, tradition and social growth survives. 

Kinship, often defined through Westernized and simplified English terms as membership to 'clans', or 'tribes' is a far more complex system of familial links based on religion, tradition, district, brothership, sect, region or 'feudal' ties - just to name a few. In this way, the English language fails to capture this array of dues and debts, ties and patronage, but this kinship underscores why rural Pakistanis (and urban Pakistanis, and the vast diasporas outside the nation) keep their ties to their homestead, why cultural wars are battled on women's bodies as centres of pride and respect, and why women tend to be kept in traditional gender roles. The results are longstanding female poverty and illiteracy throughout most of Pakistan. If Benazir Bhutto was the first female leader of a Muslim nation, this spoke very little to the realities of Pakistani women. Instead, Ms. Bhutto was the heir to a long familial line of political power, and this kinship helped her into the prime minister's role (twice).

Pakistan has also very little appetite for a cohesive, nation-wide family planning campaign. Started and abandoned by both President Ayub Khan in the late 1950's and Ms. Bhutto in the 90's, women generally have little access to decision-making affecting their reproductive health, and pregnancy or children prevents women from accessing gainful employment. Lack of family planning also keeps women and their families in generational cycles of poverty, compounded in rural areas, placing persistent stress on Pakistan's slow and overburdened service system. If the State is generally a behemoth with little cohesive power (run, again, mainly on kinship rules), Pakistan's overpopulation stresses the little resources that it does have, and water is at the forefront.

Climate change and resulting natural disasters also exacerbate gender-based violence. Current and past research show that women and girls become further victimized by sexual and domestic violence in the aftermath of disasters, as well as reporting an increase in sexual harassment. These trends are a result of heightened stress, lack of privacy in care centres, and economic loss of present and future earnings. Water scarcity in Pakistan also puts women and girls at a heightened risk of rape and kidnappings, as women in rural areas walk further to fetch water, spending time otherwise allocated to care or in pursuit of economic earnings. Systems of reporting and judicial mechanisms are rarely in place following disasters (a constant criticism levelled at aid agencies), and women are generally left to fend for themselves - usually rendering them invisible as they remain in the home - which in turn diminishes their participation or involvement in post-disaster decision-making, either in the household or in society. Already unequal systems of power are widely exaggerated and the violence falls on women and girl's shoulders. 

When the trends in declining agricultural labour forces and increased urbanization continue, the main economic and social-wellbeing victims in Pakistan will be women and girls. Climate change worldwide has proven to have disproportionately gendered effects, and Pakistan is at the helm, painting a bleak picture of how women are negatively affected by such environmental shifts. Any state collapse from water scarcity surely worries India, as it deals with its own shortages and fears an influx of climate change refugees, threatening an already rocky relationship between Muslims and Hindus. It remains to be seen how the government will respond, how much it considers the intersecting relationship between climate change and other socio-economic factors detailed above. With so many lives affected, and an entire nation's service system on the line, and cities heaving with overpopulation, it is up to the Pakistani government to decide that it has too much to lose. 

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