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Climate Change and Vulnerability: Women and Resilience in Burkina Faso

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in the Sahel region, face enormous internal challenges, including adapting agricultural methods and practices to climate change, managing agro-pastoral land in the face of climate change, and integrating gender issues into the pursuit of sustainable development. In Burkina Faso, 92% of the population work and live from agriculture, livestock and the exploitation of natural resources. Women, who make up 51.7% of the country's total population, account for a very large proportion of this figure. They are also the most vulnerable group.

In the context of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines vulnerability as "the capacity of a system to cope with and adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change, including ongoing climate change and climate-related events such as droughts and floods". Vulnerability therefore depends on three main factors: the nature and magnitude of the climate change affecting the system, the sensitivity of the system to the effects of that change, and its capacity to adapt.

In view of the above, several analysts confirm that Africa will be one of the continents most affected by climate change. Indeed, several of its regions, including the Sahel, where Burkina Faso is located, have some of the most extreme and variable climates in the world. Droughts and floods can occur within months of each other. According to Oxfam, a third of Africa's population lives in regions that suffer from recurrent drought.

Climate, agriculture and the economy in Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso's climate is characterised by a decrease in annual rainfall from south to north. Annual rainfall varies from 300 millimetres to 1,200 millimetres, depending on the area. The country has two seasons: the rainy season, which lasts from May-June to September-October, and the dry season, which lasts from November to May. There is considerable variability in rainfall from year to year, and this is becoming more pronounced with the effects of climate change. Temperatures are very high between February and June and can reach over 40⁰C. Temperatures are somewhat milder from November to February.

The majority of the population live in rural areas and practice subsistence farming, working on small family plots with a few livestock.

Over the past 50 years, Burkina Faso has experienced recurrent droughts and floods. The intervals between these phenomena are becoming shorter. The country experienced droughts in the 1970s, which continued in the following decades, particularly during the 1983-1984 and 2000-2001 agricultural seasons. This was followed by a series of floods in August-September 2007 and again in September 2009, when rainfall inundated more than 22,000 hectares and left 150,000 people without homes or livestock. In 2010, the country experienced further flooding in July and August, affecting 105,480 people according to national statistics and destroying crops and infrastructure.

Burkina Faso's vulnerability to climate change needs no further explanation, given the country's low level of development, in particular its still weak institutions, the heavy dependence of the economy on natural resources that are increasingly degraded, and a still primary agricultural sector. However, the economy is based on agriculture, natural resources and livestock. Together, these three sectors account for 32% of Burkina's GDP and employ over 90% of the population, according to the INSD.

Poverty levels are high, with about 46% of the population living below the poverty line and 20% at the extreme poverty line. The main causes of poverty in Burkina are the lack of water for agricultural production for human consumption and export, the degradation of natural resources (due to increasing demographic pressure), in short, the dry climate and the population's inability to resist climate change.

What's more, the crucial role played by women, who make up a large proportion of the population, in maintaining families in rural areas is not visible or taken into account in climate change adaptation programmes and policies.

Rural women's vulnerability to climate change

While the effects of climate change from one place to another tend to be the same for all inhabitants, the Brundtland Commission recognises a special obligation towards the most vulnerable populations. Although this raises problems of interpretation, it is unanimously recognised that women in developing countries are more exposed to the effects of climate change and that the impact on their livelihoods is greater for a number of reasons.

In Burkina Faso, the effects of climate change on agriculture and the degradation of natural resources have a greater impact on women's livelihoods. In rural areas, women are more dependent on the agricultural resources and activities that constitute their 'natural capital' for their livelihoods. From one drought year to the next, men may leave to find paid seasonal work in the cities, in urban development projects, in small-scale gold mining, etc. "They are more dependent on agriculture for their livelihood than men are," says the local chief. "They are more dependent on natural capital, and in terms of physical capital, women's plots are more vulnerable to climate change. Furthermore, in terms of human capital, women's workload increases due to the secondary effects of climate change. Financial capital is reduced by the many losses caused by difficult climatic conditions: reduced harvests due to insufficient rainfall, lack of water, damage to the environment and loss of livestock in the event of flooding, and sometimes loss of human life due to drought or flooding. As a result of climate change, women's productive role is increasing in addition to their reproductive role," says a report by the NGO Oxfam.

Adidjata Coulibaly, a rice farmer in the Bama plain in western Burkina Faso who is involved in the "Transmission Air et Terre" agricultural project, also explains the difficulties associated with access to land. "For cultural reasons, women have no right to land. And when men lend it to us, it's often plots of land with dry soil, so we can't invest in them, for fear of being dispossessed one day," she says. This makes women's plots more vulnerable to climate change. On top of this, they lack the physical strength and support needed to implement certain practices to adapt to poor rainfall, as well as access to appropriate tools.

In Makongo, in the Mouhoun loop, the authors of the "Transmission Air et Terre" programmes face a dilemma. For them, the increasing scarcity of certain resources due to population growth and the effects of climate change is making things even more difficult. Women need energy for their activities and household chores. They look for firewood for cooking and for the preparation of certain commercial products. However, they have no alternative given the scarcity of wood and the lack of other sources of energy. They are therefore faced with the choice of either cutting down and using certain tree species (shea, néré, etc.) for energy, or preserving them, which contribute to their livelihoods by providing non-wood resources (shea butter, soumbala, etc.). As a result, the conservation of certain natural resources used in their daily lives is becoming more and more difficult in the face of the need for energy and survival alternatives linked to the poor harvests that are becoming more frequent due to the effects of climate change.

In rural Burkina Faso, each family has a small farm where they grow cereals and sometimes other cash crops such as beans, cotton, sesame or peanuts. Crops grown on small plots and cereals are for family consumption. Maize, sorghum and millet make up 85-90% of the staple diet in Burkina Faso, and in rural areas cereals account for almost 100% of food consumption. Women make a huge contribution to this survival agriculture, and they need water, land, forest and other resources to fulfil their roles and provide income to meet the needs of their families. Unfortunately, they have very limited control over these resources, which will be exacerbated under conditions of dwindling natural resources linked to climate change and a doubling of the population.

Belélé Jérôme William Bationo


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