As the world tentatively moves toward recovery from what we hope is the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are reminded that an even larger threat remains: climate change.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that climate change will cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress between 2030 and 2050. Changes in temperature and rainfall patterns are already drying crucial water resources both above and below ground, diminishing agricultural production and worsening malnutrition on the continent. Extreme weather, conflict and economic upheaval saw close to 100 million people in eastern, western and southern Africa suffer from acute food insecurity in 2020 (a near 40% increase from 2019). This trifactor has also contributed greatly to a rise in human displacement in the wider Horn of Africa region.
Climate change and its impacts do not discriminate. However, considering the wealth inequalities existing between the richest and poorest nations and hierarchical make-up of African society, girls, women and children will be the biggest victims if global warming goes unchecked. During periods of drought and major flooding for example, they are left more vulnerable to disruptions in provision of essential health services such as immunization and sexual and reproductive health care, child, forced and early marriage (CEFM), loss of education opportunities and income, and exposure to sexual and gender-based violence as they travel longer distances to fetch water and firewood.
As the primary sources of unpaid labor in traditional settings, women (and girls) walk an average of 6 kilometres in a single roundtrip to fetch 20 liters of water for use in the home, often making the trip several times a day to collect enough water for household use. In countries like Kenya, where firewood is the main source of fuel for cooking and heating for 9 out of 10 rural households, women spend about 3 hours each week collecting the precious resource; and as caregivers, women spend more time caring for children and the elderly who fall ill as climate-related and other infectious diseases spread.
We cannot, and should not, normalize the agony of those less privileged. We cannot maintain the status quo that allows an 8-year-old girl in a wealthy country spend her days studying and playing while her agemates in low- and middle-income countries spend theirs walking long distances to fetch drinking water and laboring increasingly harder on family farms for diminishing harvests.
For a healthier and more prosperous tomorrow for all, we must take action today. Protecting people and the planet is not optional; it must be done. To do this we must address the shortcomings in political and commercial decisions we make today, beginning with a reimagination of global leadership that is equitable.
The leadership that will help us prevent and navigate future health and climate crises values humanity and dignity over profit, community over individualism, and inclusivity over exclusion. This is especially critical at a time when the top 10 percent of emitters are responsible for close to half of all global carbon emissions, while the bottom 50 percent (many of them in Africa) produce just 12% of total emissions.
Throughout history – and most recently during the COVID-19 pandemic – we have seen how leadership rooted in social and economic bias can prolong crises that affect all of humanity and extend avoidable suffering. Ignoring the realities of climate change will only intensify inequalities and magnify human suffering.
We have an opportunity to make things right before it’s too late. A simple yet significant first step toward safeguarding present and future generations is transforming leadership to elevate the participation of women, minorities and marginalized populations in designing and implementing locally relevant solutions to our most pressing health and climate challenges.
It is time for us to tap into our shared humanity to protect Africa’s girls and women from the gendered impacts of climate change. By embracing diverse, inclusive, and equitable leadership we can navigate today’s hardships and, in Napoleon Bonaparte’s words, display the energy of character that becomes an object of admiration to posterity.
Dr. Norah Obudho, East Africa Program Director, WomenLift Health