Climate change, young women and girls: vulnerability, impacts and adaptations in northern Thailand

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Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing our planet and its people. Indisputable scientific evidence shows that global average temperatures are increasing due to greenhouse gases emitted by human activity. Furthermore, climate change is also altering precipitation patterns and intensities around the globe, increasing climate-related disaster frequencies and intensities (i.e. floods, droughts, landslides, wildfires, tropical storms and extreme temperatures), and contributing to national and regional food and water insecurity crises, among other direct and indirect impacts.

Southeast Asia is a regional ‘hotspot’ for climate change risk owing to high exposure of large populations to climate-related disasters, dependence on seasonal rains for water and food security, and underlying drivers of vulnerability such as high rates of poverty and inequality, unplanned and rapid urbanization, and unsustainable use of natural resources (Garschagen et al., 2016; Thomalla et al., 2017; UNESCAP, 2015). In Thailand, shifts in temperature and precipitation trends have been observed. For instance, between 1955 and 2009, the average annual temperatures increase by 0.95C, while rainfall patterns fluctuate in different regions of Thailand, according to the Thailand Meteorological Department. Further, Thailand has been severely impacted by recent climate-related disasters, such as the months-long flooding in 2011 and the widespread drought in 2015-16. In Northern Thailand1, observations include heavier rainfall over shorter durations, increasing incidence of rainy season landslides, more pronounced dry seasons in terms of water availability, and warmer winters (Shrestha et al., 2017).

The agriculture sector is one which is particularly at risk in Thailand; 55% of the nation’s total area is under a form of agricultural use, and changes in climatic conditions, particularly reduced rainfall, have the potential to destabilize agricultural productivity and impact upon farmers’ incomes and lives. It is estimated that climate change could result in the loss of up to 30% of rural GDP of the lower Mekong region by 2018 (Talberth and Reytar, 2014).

Vulnerability to climate change, defined by the IPCC as the propensity or predisposition to be adversely affected by climatic risks and other stressors (IPCC, 2012) is socially differentiated. It emerges from the intersection of different inequalities and uneven power structures (Field, 2012; Sen, 1999). Further, vulnerability has been found to be higher (compared with an ‘all-of-society’ average) among certain groups; groups who experience multiple deprivations that inhibit them from managing daily risks and shocks. These so called ‘vulnerable groups’ include women, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, and indigenous peoples. These groups face deeper climate impacts and significant barriers to coping with, and adapting to, such impacts (Boyd and Juhola, 2009; Eriksen and O’Brien, 2007; O’Brien et al., 2012). For instance, ethnic minorities typically face chronic poverty and lack legal status or citizenship that limits access to land, education, health and other public services.

Research to date has revealed some of the impacts and particular vulnerabilities of children (e.g. Ebi and Paulson, 2010; Sheffield and Landrigan, 2011; Watt and Chamberlain, 2011) but there is a lack of scientific information on the intersectionality of girls’ and young women’s climate vulnerability, particularly in ethnic minority contexts.

This report seeks to address a major research gap by adopting an intersectionality approach to better understand the different climate risks, vulnerabilities, adaptation and resilience among people of different ages and different genders. In particular, this report aims to shed light on the specific climate change challenges faced by young women and girls in Northern Thailand whose experiences are not only influenced by age and gender, but also by poverty, legal status, ethnicity, language and education.

Producing scientific evidence of the specific and unique challenges faced by girls and young women in these communities is vital for demonstrating to decision-makers, donors and development actors the necessity of gender-sensitive and child-centred adaptation policies, programmes and financing, including meaningful participation of girls and young women throughout all decision-making processes. Policy and action on gender-sensitive and child-centred climate change adaptation (CCA) is urgently needed to support the millions of girls and young women worldwide facing extreme vulnerability and poverty; very few adaptation initiatives targeting girls and young women exist, despite their acute vulnerability.

The next section of the report presents findings from a literature review conducted on existing knowledge on climate change, age and gender. This section is followed by the presentation of the research methodology and the results and analysis of the field research conducted in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Lastly, the report offers conclusions and recommendations for more targeted action on climate change that builds the resilience of young women and girls.