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New study finds that South African rural women will carry the burden of climate change

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Published Aug 6, 2022

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Johannesburg - As climate change tightens its grip on South Africa, it is women who are set to carry the heaviest burden as they work in a changing world of rising temperatures and limited opportunity.

South African women who are semi-skilled and forced to work outdoors could in the near future find themselves poorer than their male counterparts and 11% less productive than they are today.

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This is according to a study published in the journal Climate and Development. In it, researchers used data from detailed longitudinal national household surveys, conducted between 2008 and 2017, to investigate the relationship between temperature and weekly working hours.

What they found was the optimal temperature for women to work in was 26.7 degrees centigrade, while for men it was a degree higher, at 27.6.

It is not clear why this is so – and for the moment those who were involved in the study can only make educated guesses.

One of the reasons could be physiological differences between men and women.

Another could be that women are intentionally becoming dehydrated because of a lack of available ablution facilities; they opt not to drink while at work.

In Nigeria, anecdotal evidence suggests this intentional dehydration is causing kidney infections among female workers.

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“Or it may be that they are having to go back home earlier because heat stress is affecting their children,” explains Adjunct Professor Shouro Dasgupta, an environmental economist at the Fondazione CMCC and the RFF-CMCC European Institute on Economics and the Environment. He was an author on the study.

Women working in occupations such as mining, agriculture and construction will be hardest hit.

And, according to the authors, those areas hardest hit by climate change will be Limpopo, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape.

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The paper stated that South Africa could see an 11 percent decline in productivity due to global warming, but Dasgupta warns that this could increase to 20 percent depending on different models of climate change.

“So every person in South Africa will be poorer due to climate change, and not only in a sense of economic growth, but also growing inequality and health conditions are going to decline,” he says.

However, this comes as women, particularly in the rural areas of South Africa, are already experiencing the effects of climate change, says environmental activist Dorah Marema.

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“Women mainly in rural areas are reliant on subsistence agriculture and with the impacts of climate change and projections of droughts and warmer environments, some of the species they rely on are no longer viable,” explains Marema, who was not a part of the study.

Warmer weather, says Marema, is already causing changes. Trees are bearing fruit earlier in the season, making them vulnerable to early-season extreme weather events such as hail.

Insects such as mopane worms have also been affected by climate change and are not as plentiful in some areas as they were in years past.

Droughts are also causing changes in traditional gender roles.

“You have a situation where a drought kills off livestock, which results in men encroaching on the traditional ways that women use to make money,” adds Marema.

“You will find men now collecting water or wood for families.”

Dasgupta says to protect against the effects of climate change and protect labour, more research needs to be done to fully understand the problem.

“We need to come up with an integrated solution that will require expertise from the medical side, the public health side, from educators, politicians and also the general public,” explains Dasgupta.

This research might look at early warning systems and the introduction of regulations that limit or stop work when temperatures rise to a certain level.

“We need employers and regulatory authorities to understand that workers’ health is important,” Dasgupta says.

Marema believes that behavioural changes are needed to survive climate change. It could mean changing to farming indigenous crops such as sorghum, as opposed to maize, which needs more water.

“It feels like we don't have a handle on green research on what is emerging with this changing planet. What is working, what is viable, so that we can say in this region this is what can be done,” she says.

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