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POPULATION: Where’s Family Planning on Climate Change Radar?

Zofeen Ebrahim interviews noted social demographer KAREN HARDEE

KARACHI, Sep 17 2009 (IPS) - Are climate change and reproductive health two disparate subjects?

Not if one asks Dr Karen Hardee, a social demographer for over 20 years, with extensive experience in population and development as well as family planning.

The world population is expected to reach seven billion by 2011, and there are 200 million women who have unmet family planning needs, resulting in millions of unintended births, according to the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau.

In Pakistan, for instance, family planning and reproductive health services “still remain out of reach for millions of Pakistanis,” she said in a 2008 research commentary she co-authored, ‘Population, Fertility and Family Planning in Pakistan: A Program in Stagnation’.

Yet, Hardee asks, how come scientists and climate change experts fail to make the crucial connection between sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and climate change? She says the global architecture around climate change addresses mitigation and adaptation policies on technological solutions while social sectors, including health, are not sufficiently included on its radar.

The senior researcher at the Washington-based Population Action International (PAI), which promotes universal access to family planning and reproductive health care services, says it is critical that voices supporting SRHR and family planning are heard in the forthcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference, to be held on Dec. 7 to 18 in Copenhagen.

She calls for “more people-centered global and national adaptation approaches that meet the full range of people’s needs”.

In an exclusive email interview with IPS, Hardee explains how climate change impacts SRHR and why it is important to involve women in adaptation programmes.

IPS: Population growth has taken a toll on the world’s resources. But how can carbon emissions, floods, glacial melt and rising sea levels and temperatures affect women’s reproductive health, especially in the Global South? KAREN HARDEE: For people in countries most affected by climate change, finding and supporting adaptation strategies that strengthen people’s resilience and ability to cope with the effects of changes in climate is critical. To me that is the link to reproductive health — women and couples need to be able to have (the choice and freedom to have) the number of children they want.

At the individual level, good reproductive health care, including the ability to make informed choices on fertility, should be among the strategies for adapting to climate change.

We have just concluded research in Ethiopia in which people themselves make the link between fertility and climate change.

IPS: What has climate change got to do with 201 million people unable to access services for voluntary family planning? KH: The unmet need for family planning has individual and societal consequences related to climate change.

At the societal level, excess fertility caused by women having more children than they want to have — in part, because they do not have adequate access to voluntary family planning — exacerbates the effects of climate change.

Rapid population growth — which is still taking place in many countries, including Pakistan — will increase vulnerability to many of the most serious impacts of climate change. Food scarcity, water scarcity, vulnerability to natural disasters and infectious diseases, and population displacement are all exacerbated by rapid population growth.

(In Pakistan) heavy reliance of the economy and of almost half of (the country’s) population on the agriculture sector for their livelihoods means that changes in temperature that affect crops have huge impacts.

An increasing share of the population, already vulnerable and living in marginalised areas, will be susceptible to climate variations and extreme weather events. Furthermore, in countries with rapid population growth, governments are straining to keep up with the need to provide services, including education, health care and jobs, for their citizens.

IPS: How do changes in weather patterns affect women? KH: As caretakers of their families, women suffer the most from the effects of climate change – followed by children.

As water becomes scarcer, women have to travel longer distances to find it. With food shortages, women have to find ways to feed their families. Women, (already faced with) their own health issues, including the possibility of unintended pregnancy, have to care for their children, who are highly susceptible to ill health related to climbing temperatures. The health effects of climate change alone are projected to be staggering.

IPS: If it is true that there are only 16 percent women scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), could we say that women’s apparent weak representation at the helm of affairs partly explains why they bear the brunt of climate change? KH: Absolutely. We need to keep highlighting this because most people have no idea how few women are involved in the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which sets a framework for intergovernmental efforts to address this global concern) and the IPCC (an intergovernmental body that evaluates the impact of human activity on climate change).

IPS: Given a chance, can women come up with better solutions to adapting to climate change? KH: For now, the solutions for adaptation are very technological and do not include enough focus on social issues. Adaptation needs to become people-centered, which will only happen if women are more involved in finding solutions to adaptation.

There are some sound technological solutions like small-scale rural and urban renewable energy projects, compressed natural gas mini-cars enabled through tax rebates; investments in public transit by private companies; energy-efficient, flood-protected public housing….

While these are all good measures, they do not get at the social aspects of adaptation – making sure that people are educated and healthy… and that they have employment options. The social and human dimension is missing in the current global adaptation (discourse).

IPS: What else is missing in the whole approach to the issue of climate change? KH: Reviewing the National Adaptation Programmes of Action of 41 Least Developed Countries (which identified priority activities for responding to immediate climate change needs), we observed the way adaptation was being handled by countries and the UNFCCC.

While there was a high link (between) rapid population growth (and) climate change, this was not matched with a proportional identification of adaptation interventions…. I think we need to seriously rethink how we approach adaptation – and women must be involved.

I wonder when environmentalists work in, say, Pakistan’s Indus (River) Delta, do they ask locals about the family size and access to reproductive health services – in addition to saving the mangroves and their livelihoods?

I wish more assessments of adaptation to climate change would ask that question.

IPS: What about the men? What are they saying? KH: I attended a workshop in December 2008 at which findings from a study on agriculture and climate change in Ethiopia were presented. The whole workshop focused on crop yields and water management. Finally, there was a panel of farmers, invited to talk about the issue from their perspective. The farmers – all men – talked about their lives and agriculture, and they also spontaneously said, ‘(W)e have too many children and we can’t feed them and give them milk. We need family planning’.

I think if we asked that question more, we would see how important having access to the means to have the number of children people want and can support really is in people’s lives and how that needs to be among the strategies to help people cope with the effects of climate change.

The study doesn’t say that population is solely responsible for climate change. It also isn’t saying that the only thing needed for adaptation is family planning.

Instead, it is taking a very individual view and asking: ‘Would having access to the means of fertility control help you as an individual and you as a family better cope with the effects of climate change?’

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