The Human Faces of Climate Change in Ethiopia

The Human Faces of Climate Change in Ethiopia

Karen Hardee

The old adage, think globally and act locally, is key to addressing climate change. Community-based, integrated approaches and solutions are essential to adaptation.

The old adage, think globally and act locally, should be
heeded in discussing solutions to climate change.  While changes in industrialized country consumption patterns
and technological solutions are needed to help stop the flow of dangerous greenhouse
gases into the atmosphere and rendering the planet hotter and hotter, they will
be insufficient to address the other side of climate change – helping
the most vulnerable people adapt
to its effects.  Adaptation requires community-based and integrated approaches
to help people cope.  Involving communities and devising
solutions based on local environmental and social conditions is the only
sustainable approach.

Metu area, Ethiopia. Photo credit:  Karen Hardee, PAIMetu area, Ethiopia. Photo credit: Karen Hardee, PAI

The human face of climate change is apparent throughout the
world, and the Wichi Wetlands watershed in southwestern Ethiopia is no
exception.  A headwater of the Nile, the watershed
has more than local importance. Protecting
wetlands and making them healthier is not only good for individuals, families and
communities, it’s good for the climate too, since wetlands absorb more carbon than forests
and are considered more
sustainable as carbon sinks.

The Ethio
Wetlands Natural Resource Association
(EWNRA) began working in the watershed
through a wetlands conservation project. 
In response to people’s needs, activities under EWRNA have expanded to
include health promotion and also to deal with a critical issue facing farmers
in the area – dwindling land holdings due to a succession of generations of
large families.  The Wichi Wetlands
Project works in collaboration with the local government, a relationship described
by one official as close as “water and life.”  This integrated Population, Health and Environment (PHE)
Project provides a good model for community-based adaptation strategies.  In addition to environmental
protection, health promotion and provision of family planning information and
services, the project includes components addressing farming practices,
agro-forestry, potable water cleaner cooking facilities, and micro-credit for

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One farmer, 44 year old Gezaghun Gudeta, has already experienced
the benefits of the program.  In
just a few years his fields have become a model in his kebele. Growing a new composite
maize seed that he can both sell to the government and replant interspersed with
grasses to hold the soil and capture water, his farm has greatly increased its
yield – and his income.  Organic
composting has also boosted this agricultural output.  Gezaghun, whose father also farmed this land, has seen
changes in the local climate, most notably rising temperatures.  Reversing the erosion of his farmland
and restoring the wetlands is giving him a head start on adapting to these

Gezaghun Gudeta.  Photo credit:  Karen Hardee, PAIGezaghun Gudeta. Photo credit: Karen Hardee, PAI

Protecting the wetlands is also having positive health
effects on the communities – particularly on the lives of women.  In addition to cook stoves that use
less wood and produce less smoke, potable water is captured through community
water pumps. This frees up time that women spent collecting water, which put
them at risk of harm when traveling the long distances needed.  In addition, the Tulube health center reported
that while parasitic infections were the number one reason people sought care
in 1998, today they have moved down to number six.

Gezaghun Gudeta’s maize crop.  Photo credit:  Karen Hardee, PAIGezaghun Gudeta’s maize crop. Photo credit: Karen Hardee, PAI

The residents
are also planning their families through use of contraception.  Couples like Zenhun and his wife Aster
in Tulube are using the contraceptive Depo Provera and are happy with the three
children they have.  “We can
educate and feed them well.”  
They wonder why the government –and non-governmental organizations – has
not been more proactive in ensuring access to family planning, noting the
pressure they face providing for their children on increasingly small farm
plots. Read more stories like Zenhun and Aster’s in PAI’s new report, Linking Population, Fertility and Family Planning with Adaptation to Climate Change: Views
from Ethiopia.”

Rapid population growth, resulting partly from lack of access
to contraceptives
, is straining family and community resources. Young
people in the Wichi catchment area want help through formal education and life
skills training.  Schools, which
often run double shifts lack adequate facilities and books for students.  Education is the cornerstone of
building human capital, and can empower girls and women especially to reshape their
own lives and the lives of their children and families.  Girl’s education goes hand in hand with
access to contraception to help women take control of their own fertility. 

Children in front of a community-built school.  Photo credit:  Karen Hardee, PAIChildren in front of a community-built school. Photo credit: Karen Hardee, PAI

The world’s current approach to climate change adaptation needs
a dose of the social sciences to focus a lens on the human face of climate
change.  In addition to technology,
adaptation approaches require attention to all aspects of people’s lives
through community-based integrated strategies.   Current “PHE” –
population, health and environment – projects offer a promising model.  In Ethiopia, the Consortium for the Integration of PHE, was
established to strengthen these projects. 
In addition to hydropower and early warning systems, among other
technological advances, community social capital needs to be enhanced–
including meeting the needs of youth. 
Individual resilience will be enhanced by strengthening human capital
through education, health, family planning and empowerment.  The people of Ethiopia’s Wichi Wetlands
are a model of how adaptation can work.

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