Myanmar: rural women cope with natural disasters and climate change

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Pinsalu Island, Myanmar – Eight years after experiencing the devastating Cyclone Nargis, Myanmar’s worst natural disaster to date in the country, rural communities, especially women, in the Ayeyarwady River Delta, live in constant dread of another monster sea storm.

Although better prepared with improved early warning systems and ready to quickly pack essentials before taking refuge in the village cyclone shelters with their families, the women of Pinsalu in Labutta district in the Delta face a higher risk to their lives during a natural disaster and are more exposed to the growing ravages of climate change. In case of emergency, the women have to take care of the children, sick and elderly at home as the men are often away at work on the farms or fishing in the river. 

During community consultations for a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) climate change gender vulnerability assessment, the women of Pinsalu and Labutta villages  which were worst affected by the May 2008 Cyclone Nargis, said they need to be better prepared for natural disasters as they are primarily responsible for the safety of vulnerable family members. They are trying to procure lifejackets and supplies of safe drinking water, food, medicine and electric lights.

They also need to improve their preparedness to cope with the worsening impact of the changing climate on their daily lives. Although women are actively engaged in farming and fisheries, their role in these main livelihood sectors is still not recognized and, as a result, they are often excluded from government-run climate change adaptation training for farmers and fishers.

The findings of the UNEP gender assessment, underscore how climate change is affecting rural women and men in Myanmar, especially in a country where 15.1 per cent of agricultural landowning households are headed by women.

The women of Labutta lack access to information and other resources needed to adapt to the changing climate. As a result, these women who play pivotal social and economic roles in their communities and often are breadwinners, are the most vulnerable. Over the past decade in Pinsalu, where the main source of livelihoods is fishing, the fish catch has been reduced dramatically because of rising temperatures and damage to mangroves.

In the village of Kyauk Hmaw, river bank erosion damages roads, houses and the rice that is stored by the river side, while floods are harming the paddy crop. During heavy rains and floods, women cannot travel to Labutta to sell their crop, fish catch and home-made snacks.

On the other hand, erratic rainfall in Bit Tut village sometimes destroys the once-in-a-year rice harvest. Salt water intrusion in the coastal villages has increased salinity in drinking water with severe health implications, especially for pregnant women.

In responding and adapting to climate change, rural women in Myanmar face multiple challenges, ranging from making ends meet, unequal pay for the same work and unequal access to natural resources to limited participation in decision-making.

The UNEP gender assessment also found that the women in Labutta are using innovative adaptive measures, securing additional income by running small businesses, growing vegetables and fruits, medicinal and other plants for sale, selling snacks and sewing clothes.

However, these initiatives are affected by women’s restricted ability to own land, borrow and invest money or start a business.

In addition, more and more women in the villages are also taking up employment in factories located not far from their villages, while men work in the construction sector.

Working through the Myanmar Climate Change Alliance (MCCA), the UNEP Regional Office for Asia Pacific is supporting efforts to mainstream gender-responsive approaches in Myanmar’s climate change strategies at national and local levels in order to help scale up these activities in other climate change-vulnerable developing countries in the region. Through this support, UNEP is also supporting 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda gender equality-related goals and targets.

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