Women at the Center of Climate-friendly Approaches to Agriculture and Water Use


Global warming has already affected the world’s climate, and changed the type, timing, duration and intensity of water precipitation. There is either less or more snow and rain, affecting the amount of water that comes from snowmelts. There is increased frequency of extreme weather events across the world—cyclones, floods or droughts in populous regions. Some of these events affect millions, as was evident in South Asia recently.1

There are also smaller weather events such as delayed onset of monsoons or prolonged dry spells. These too have been playing havoc with the agriculture-dependent livelihoods and food security of about 75 percent of the world’s poor who live in rural areas. This is particularly true for arid and semi-arid areas in the global south where the global water crisis is already a reality, poverty is rampant and agricultural systems are under siege. The U.N. has estimated that already in 2010, there are about 50 million climate refugees. By 2080 these numbers are likely to be much higher as agricultural productivity in arid and semiarid regions is expected to reduce by anywhere between 15 to 50 percent (see maps below).

Communities around the world have been exploring various ways to cope with the challenges they face in meeting their food and water security needs in this changed environment. The strategies adopted by vulnerable households in the face of these events are not only influenced by their traditional knowledge and immediate environment, but also by the political opportunities available to them.

Quite often, new policies on national development and food security undermine food and water security strategies adopted by individuals and households from marginal groups. It is necessary to create an environment that recognizes a wide diversity of strategies and strengthens gender-sensitive approaches. These approaches already address climate change, food and water security simultaneously. This is especially important in an overall policy context where agriculture is the sector most impacted by the vagaries of climate change, and the main sector through which both adaptation and mitigation can simultaneously be achieved to help solve food security issues, and the climate and water crises.

Most current climate proposals on adaptation and mitigation largely focus on developing new technological interventions, without adequate attention to precautionary principles. Thus, there are increased investments towards solutions like developing new climate-ready seeds to deal with water scarcity and pests; and “soil carbon sequestration” through large-scale use of bio-char is proposed as a means for reducing the carbon levels and enhancing soil-quality. However, these approaches are based on still-unproven claims. For example according to Syngenta, “Agronomic traits, such as drought tolerance, and output traits such as yield or quality improvements have not yet emerged from the research phase [in the case of transgenic crops].”2 More over they do not fully consider their unintended impact on our natural world, which could worsen the overall crisis.

This case study on proven methods and practices by women in arid areas of India provides lessons for more immediate and sustainable alternatives.

The study is particularly relevant for highly populous and arid countries like India and China with emerging economies. India, along with other members of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and South Africa, is a key political actor in climate negotiations. On the other hand, India is home to more than 40 percent of world’s poor and has more people living in poverty than in Africa and the Americas combined. Accounting for 17 percent of world’s population, but having access to only 4 percent of its water resources, India is a water scarce country with an average annual rainfall of 1,200 millimeters (mm). Tamilnadu, where this case study is located, experiences an annual rainfall of 930 mm, making it the second driest state in the country.

This paper identifies three principles and two sets of policy-level interventions necessary to enhance water and food security for marginal communities by drawing on the experiences of the Tamilnadu Women’s Collective (WC), a state-level federation of women’s groups from 1,500 villages. With a membership of over 150,000, the WC is spread over 16 districts in Tamilnadu State, India.3