Scaling the Mountain: Women, Health, and the Environment in Nepal | Wilson Center
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Scaling the Mountain: Women, Health, and the Environment in Nepal

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From the mountains and foothills of the Himalayas to the Terai plains, climate change is rapidly changing life in Nepal. Many communities however, are not strangers to environmental stress; for decades, rapid population growth alongside agriculture and fuelwood collection have degraded land and diminished forests.

With the help of programs that integrate traditionally distinct development objectives, such as natural resource management, health care, and education, villagers have been able to improve their livelihoods under these environmental strains, and there is evidence now that those same approaches may help boost individual and community resilience to climate change, said Judy Oglethorpe of the World Wildlife Fund at the Wilson Center on January 7.

Wellbeing of Forests and Communities Linked

Livelihoods, population dynamics, and environmental health have long been entwined in Nepal. One in four Nepalese lives below the poverty line and the majority of these live in rural areas and rely on subsistence farming, said Rishi Bastakoti, a Vanier scholar at the University of Calgary. Clearing land for cultivation, raising livestock, and collecting fuelwood have strained forests and degraded land, forcing the historically marginalized Chepang people to relocate every two or three years in search of fertile land.

In 2000, Bastakoti began promoting forest conservation among the Chepang through the Resource Identification and Management Society (RIMS), a local NGO. But it wasn’t until 2006, when RIMS reoriented its work around integrated development in two Dhading district villages that they began to see results.

Originally, Bastakoti and his forestry colleagues were focused solely on environmental conservation, but the more they worked with local people, the more they realized there were other dynamics to consider. Reproductive health was chief among them. Women were having more children than they wanted, he said, thanks to poor access to health services, which undermined maternal and child health and led to rapid population growth, lower education levels, and ultimately more degraded ecosystems.

In response, RIMS implemented a population, health, and environmental (PHE) program that integrated environmental conservation with health services and support for sustainable livelihoods. In addition to educating community members about how forest health and community wellbeing are linked, RIMS provided them with resources to improve both. They simultaneously taught conservation techniques, provided fuel-efficient cookstoves, and expanded voluntary access to family planning and reproductive health information, which enabled couples to delay pregnancy.

By implementing these interventions through what are called Community Forest User Groups, which villagers have historically used to manage their natural resources, RIMS was also able to strengthen local governance structures. The user groups and volunteer networks they worked with have been able to continue the momentum of the project and ensure that community interests and rights are upheld, even as funding for the PHE program ran out.

ECSP’s documentary Scaling the Mountain, inspired by Bastakoti’s 2009 visit to the Wilson Center and screened at the January panel, conveys how RIMS’ work has slowed land degradation and reduced the pressures on the Chepang to move as frequently.

Development Through Empowerment

A lesson from PHE efforts is that environmental protection is most effective when grounded in community rights and responsive to needs. Integrated development programs that include reproductive health are geared towards enabling those most powerless to thrive, said Bastakoti and Oglethorpe.

“In terms of reducing vulnerability… [it’s] really, really important for women to be able to have the number of children that they want when they want them,” said Oglethorpe. “And in Nepal, particularly important, given that there are so many women-headed households now and women have huge burdens.”

Bastakoti came to understand the empowering potential of family planning not just through his work at RIMS, but in his own life. A native of Nepal, his mother and father wanted to provide their children with advanced education, but were unsure if they could while supporting a large family. They were worried about using family planning, however, because of rumors about the health consequences for mother and children, he said. A relative working in the development sector was able to teach them about what to expect and how to access contraception, and Bastakoti’s parents stopped having children after three. Today Bastakoti and his two siblings have all studied at the graduate level.

Climate Changes Bearing Down

Despite the success of RIMS in Dhading, the challenge for Nepal remains large. Nationwide, 40 percent of girls are married by age 15, with unmet need for family planning high in many rural areas. Almost 50 percent of children are malnourished, and 84 percent of households continue to use wood for fuel, with demand outstripping supply by 1.5 million tons annually, said Bastakoti.

These challenges are now being exacerbated by climate change, said Oglethorpe. Unpredictable monsoon seasons can wreak havoc on agriculture and livestock cycles, causing flooding in the lowlands and washing away soil in the hill and mountain regions. When sediment from 26,000 feet up is deposited at sea level, it can destroy fields and obstruct river flows, she explained.

Climate change is already resulting in poorer health outcomes across the country. More extreme flooding and rising water tables have accelerated the spread of water- and insect-borne diseases, Oglethorpe said, and with more sudden cold snaps, clinicians have seen a rise in respiratory diseases like pneumonia.

To empower those most at risk to climate shocks and stressors, WWF, CARE, and several Nepalese NGOs have developed the Hariyo Ban Project, which aims to equip communities not only to adapt to climate change, but exercise their rights to live healthy and productive lives.

“We work with the poorest, most marginalized people and with women and communities, working on their local issues, building their self-confidence, enabling them to come to the table, to speak out in meetings, giving them self-esteem and self-confidence to do that,” Oglethorpe said.

Much of that empowerment involves increasing awareness, said Oglethorpe. The project invites communities in the Terai Arc and Chitwan-Annapurna landscapes to participate in Community Learning and Action Centers. In small meetings over a period of 16 weeks, community members learn about the effects of climate change on their local ecosystems and identify challenges they face in adapting and maintaining their livelihoods. Hariyo Ban staff work with groups to rank and map out vulnerabilities, and formulate plans to address them.

“Knowledge, in the communities we’ve been working in, really is power,” said Oglethorpe. “Knowing that it’s probably not going to get better and it may get worse enables them to plan ahead.”

The project also assists communities in implementing their plans. Like RIMS, Hariyo Ban has found greatest success by integrating diverse programming and projects. “What’s been amazing to me, managing this project, is the wide range of things we do,” Oglethorpe said. “We do agriculture, we do disasters, we do conservation, forests, wildlife. We do health, we do education – it really just depends [on] how people are vulnerable.”

From Integrated Programs to Integrated Policy?

Integrated development programs, offer “an opportunity to think differently about what development can look like,” said A. Tianna Scozarro, a population and climate associate atPopulation Action International.

Scozarro, who recently participated in both the 69th UN General Assembly and the UN climate summit in Lima, is encouraged by the fact that health – particularly women’s sexual and reproductive health – has emerged as an important centerpiece of the sustainable development and climate agendas.

But, said Scozarro, much work remains to ensure that support for these priorities translates to actual implementation. “We’re so focused on these very abstract policy documents at the UN level, but there’s an opportunity to really take the local projects that have effectively implemented some of this work to inform what indicators…and targets [for the Sustainable Development Goals] will look like.”

The panelists said integrated development could inspire policy approaches that are more dynamic and innovative. Oglethorpe pointed out that Hariyo Ban owes much of its success to the flexibility of its funding, which can be put towards a number of diverse interventions that work in tandem to reduce vulnerability. They are able to respond more to the priorities of their beneficiaries rather than their funders.

“Often some of these really impressive stories don’t make it to those global conversations,” said Scozzaro. More evocative communications efforts, like Population Action International and ECSP’s short films, are helpful because they demonstrate the abilities and leadership potential of women and other marginalized groups, she said.

“Similar to how we see that women are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on the most local level, women are also often absent at the 10,000-foot view,” said Scozzaro. “Much education needs to still happen with some of the climate negotiators and the member states that are participating in those climate conversations about the role of women.”

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Written by Sarah Meyerhoff, edited by Schuyler Null.

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