By Saeanna Chingamuka
01 December 2011
It has been an exciting journey to be present at the COP 17 meeting currently underway in Durban. I have attended interesting meetings, with charismatic speakers like the one who kept saying that Africa is being forced to adapt to a situation that it did not create. Yes, we did not create the conditions that brought climate change, but since we are a global village, is it not fair for us to face our problems as a global family? Or do we have selective amnesia when it comes to what globalisation means?
The 1994 State of the Environment in Southern Africa points out that between 1991 and 1992, Southern Africa, excluding Namibia, experienced the worst drought in living memory. There were serious food and water shortages and livestock perished.
I lived in a densely populated township in Harare, Zimbabwe. Our household owned an old and massive Supersonic radio whose volume could not be reduced and was permanently on high. This is a radio that was well past its best before date, but being a low-income family, we somehow forced it to work. I remember this because 1991 was very traumatic for me and the messages from that radio were quite disturbing.
Reports on national radio, remember that the volume was very high, said that the country was facing serious food shortages and had to import yellow maize. Through the radio's frequent updates, we went on a journey with the trains that brought maize into the country. When the train got stuck, we would know that by the end of the week, if that goods train was not fixed, there would be no mealie-meal in the house.
Anyway, I want to write about a day in my mother's life during that period.
Firstly, there were the water shortages. We knew back then that every 15 October we would have the first rains. By the time we got into the New Year, most dams would have filled to capacity. But things changed in 1991. We had erratic rainfall.
There were adverts on radio that people should save water, use buckets to water the gardens instead of hosepipes, and that the local municipality would start to ration water. Water rations became water scarcity; we would go without water for one day, then it became a week and then it even got to one month.
My mother had to wake up early in the morning before sunrise to fetch water from unprotected sources on the outskirts of the township. This water would be for the toilet, cleaning the house and washing the dishes, among other things. For drinking, we had two 25 litre containers and we had to use this water sparingly. If one container finished, my mother had to travel to the nearest suburb on foot to get clean water. She would then walk back with her container balanced on her head.
She also had to provide food for the family and our staple food in Zimbabwe is maize. Every day, we have to eat sadza or pap. We were not used to other alternatives like rice or pasta. So she had to go and queue at the local shopping centre several times in the week only to be lucky on one of the days and get a 10 kilogram bag of maize meal. How long would it last before she had to go to the shopping centre to join the queues again?
Climate change had already started knocking on our doors. We just didn't know it.
Being a young woman then, I felt for my mother. She had to provide food on the table, make sure we had clean water to drink, and water for other domestic purposes. My father would not worry about all those things. He would give my mother money to go and look for mealie-meal. The water in the house, he simply did not care.
I have remembered the period between 1991 and 1992 at this COP 17 meeting. Many discussions are around agro-ecology, climate jobs, gas emissions and adapting to climate change. When a presenter refers to women, chances are very high that it will be rural women.
We should not forget that climate change also affects urban women. Just because they are staying in urban areas does not mean that they are spared. The township we used to stay in in 1991 is still there. Taps have since dried up as the local council cannot provide clean water to residents. It is not their own making, but other factors including erratic rainfalls come to play. But residents still have to pay water bills every month end.
Women have had to fetch water from unprotected sources. This exposes families to water borne diseases such as cholera. Discussions at COP 17 should not sideline women in urban areas. They are equally affected and strategies put in place by local government should take into consideration the differential impact of climate change on women and men.
The burden of access to clean and safe water remains. We should therefore not forget during this years' Sixteen days of Activism that climate change also perpetuates violence against women. If women have to walk a few more kilometres to the closest clean water source, it exposes them to physical and sexual abuse. Service providers in local government should thus opt to sink boreholes in urban areas at central points that are safe and easily accessible for women.
Saeanna Chingamuka is the Gender and Media Diversity Centre Manager at Gender Links. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service and African Woman and Child Feature Service special series for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence and COP 17 Conference.