January 12, 2013, by Kieran Cooke
EMBARGOED until 0001 GMT on Saturday 12 January
Climate change bears down in different ways on distinct groups in society, and some have more to cope with than others – like women in the Indian state of Assam.
LONDON, 12 January – People in Assam, northeast India, are used to coping with extremes in the weather. When the monsoon sweeps in there are floods. When temperatures soar in late summer, there is drought. The trouble is that in recent years, the timetable of such events has gone haywire.
Assam is home to more than 31 million people, 14% of them under six years old. Described by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as part of the highly eco-sensitive and fragile eastern Himalayan region, the territory has been witnessing marked climatic changes over the past 60 years. According to official figures collated by local meteorologists, there has been a steady decline in annual rainfall in the state over the 1950-2010 period, with the trend particularly evident over the past decade. Meanwhile the mean annual temperature has risen by more than 1°C since 1950.
A new study by three organisations working in the northeast, including the Indian Network on Ethics and Climate Change, investigates how these changes in climate are affecting the more marginalized groups in society, in particular women in rural areas.
The study, involving 900 households in six different locations around the state, found that climate change is having a serious impact on poor women in various ways: increased flooding in some areas has led to soil erosion which in turn has meant farmers have struggled to earn a living. As a result, women are forced to leave the home in search of work, often as cleaners or weavers. With no one in the home, girls have to leave school to look after younger children and do the chores.
Child marriages on the rise
Increased periods of drought in another area mean there is no fodder for cattle, and milk production, a vital income source, has declined. Farmers find it impossible to work in the intense heat that now often bakes the land. Again, women are forced to leave their homes and find wage-paying work. Such families struggle to get by; the study found the number of child marriages has increased in recent years as “parents of impoverished families find it an easy way to provide a better future for their girl children.”
Assam is famous for its tea gardens. “The unusual rain pattern is playing havoc with the tea plantations”, says the study. Declines in tea production mean there are fewer jobs available and more people move to the towns and cities. As has happened in other parts of the world, once such a trend of urbanisation is under way, it’s hard to reverse. Some young girls from the tea gardens, says the study, are forced into the flesh trade.
Increased flooding and rising temperatures have led to a rise in disease, particularly malaria. In the tea-growing regions, more pesticides are being used to counteract crop diseases. The result is that garden workers – older ones are paid US$1.50 per day while girls earn half that amount – are noticing more skin infections.
While local authorities and the state government have taken action to limit soil erosion and tackle floods in some areas, there is an urgent need for more to be done, says the study. And with only 40% of the state’s irrigation systems functioning properly, that includes harvesting and sustaining precious water resources. A massive tree planing programme is also required. Far more attention has to be paid to poverty alleviation.
The study shows a people bewildered by what’s happening. “It rains excessively when unexpected and does not rain when it is expected”, one farmer says. – Climate News Network
Kieran Cooke, a founding editor of Climate News Network, is a former foreign correspondent for the BBC and Financial Times. He now focuses on environmental issues