At 19, Preethi Tandel was a new bride in Honnavar, a picturesque port town along India’s western coastline. When her husband, a fisherman, went out on the sea, she stayed home and worried if he would return safely. Now, 15 years later, advance weather warnings have made his fishing trips far less risky, she said, speaking in Kannada by phone from her home.
India first set up its National Monsoon Mission to improve weather forecasts for farmers in 2012. Since then the country has invested in high-performance computing, allowing it to develop a state-of-the-art early warning system that is now considered among the best in the world. The system has helped significantly reduce the death toll during extreme weather events like cyclones, at a time when climate change is making those events more dangerous than ever.
A cyclone now can go from Category One with a capacity to cause “minimal” damage to a Category Four that is considered “extreme” in less than 24 hours instead of days, according to Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. This can make the waters very rough, very quickly.
In the past decade alone, investments in early warning systems have helped evacuate millions to safety in time ahead of cyclones. Last September, when Cyclone Gulab made landfall in southern Odisha, a state in eastern India along the Bay of Bengal, the number of deaths was in the single digits. This is in sharp contrast to the death toll of thousands that the state witnessed in 1999 during Cyclone Paradip.
The system also benefits women like Preethi Tandel.
While some women working in the fishing community might use the warning system to understand their own risks from high tides, or to better plan the sale of a catch, a 2020 report commissioned by the country’s Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) found that many women also often use these systems to track the safety of men at sea.
All together, the report pegged the economic benefits accrued by women in the agriculture, livestock and fishing sectors at about $1.8 billion since 2012, which is 26.6% of the total economic benefit. It’s a significant impact that experts say point to the need to better understand the ways in which climate policies affect women, and to include their voices early on in the policymaking process.
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In fishing communities across India’s nearly 7,500 kilometers of coastline, women are key partners to the person out in the sea, usually the men. They sell the catch, keep track of prices, nets and other fishing assets. With around 5,700 kilometers of this coastline vulnerable to tropical cyclones, information on extreme weather events is key to the safety of the men and by extension the economic stability of the family. That’s why many women call INCOIS, an information system that provides the ocean weather forecast, daily to find out about conditions.
“The early warning system is the top of the iceberg, but it isn’t the whole iceberg,” according to Vasudha Chhotray of the University of East Anglia, who studies the politics of development in the Indian state. That women do not face the same risks from extreme weather events as the men out in the waters is a common misunderstanding, Chhotray said, adding that policymakers need to pay attention to the gendered impacts their solutions to climate change and extreme weather might have.
She points out that families in the coastal areas often live on islands interspersed by waterways where there is a risk of rising tides. “By the fact that they [women] are actually left behind in those homes exposed to rising waters, they may actually face a bigger risk,” she pointed out.
Dakshin Foundation, a Bengaluru-based nonprofit that works closely with marine communities, found that women worried about the safety of their children left behind at home when they had to go away for three to four days to sell dried fish.
In the coastal areas of Odisha, the government has promoted aquaculture as a viable alternative to traditional paddy cultivation, Chhotray said. With rising sea levels, salt water enters the fields, making them unfit for cultivation. Women who were heavily involved in paddy cultivation now find themselves pushed out of this new climate adaptation strategy that needs fewer people, is often far from the villages, and is considered too dangerous for women wearing sarees, as the long fabric could get sucked into the machines used to aerate the aquaculture tanks.
“So, there is long-term livelihood change, which I argue is highly precarious,” Chhotray added. “And women are being left out of the conversation.”
This also draws attention to the need for climate policies to include women’s voices at the planning stage, experts say, so as to not exacerbate their existing vulnerabilities or create newer ones.
While looking at the policy’s economic benefits for women is a good start and reflects their productivity, it does not capture the social dynamics, according to Joyshree Roy, an energy and climate scientist at the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand who trained as an environmental economist. “We need more indicators to track sustainable progress and social impacts [that] are happening,” she said. “How are they participating in decision-making with new knowledge imparted to them? Is the asset ownership changing? I am looking for those things.”Indeed, women’s vulnerability to climate fluctuations is an under-researched area. Extreme weather events that have become more frequent due to climate change have been documented to push up rates of gender-based violence, disrupt supply of reproductive services and contraceptives, lead to poor menstrual hygiene, and even lead to increased rates of child marriages in some regions.
For now, India provides its cyclone early-warning system to over 20 other countries in the Indian ocean rim, potentially extending the benefits for women far beyond its borders.
Srinivas Kumar Tummala, director of INCOIS, estimates that women make up at least 80% of participants in weather update training workshops the organization arranges for community members. “They’re more interested, they’re accessible,” Srinivas said.
It is important to include women in the dissemination chain of information, he said, and to know how the information is being used by the community.
Tandel said she relies on her husband and a local network of friends and relatives to glean weather updates, as she is not yet trained to decipher them. “He doesn’t tell me too much as he doesn’t want me to worry,” she said, “but I also get to know through others in the community as news travels fast.” A homemaker with two young children, she said she would benefit from training not just in reading the weather updates, but also in helping to market the catch her fisher husband brings in and set up a business.
“Women’s invisibility continues even in the climate conversation,” Roy said. “And when fast transformation is going to happen, because they’re invisible they will just be forgotten in the whole process unless we account for women’s productive role in the society.”