Climate Change, Environment, Family Planning

The Human Faces of Climate Change in Ethiopia

Originally published on RH Reality Check

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.


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 women.


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 changes.

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.


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 upcoming report, “Linking Population, Fertility and Family Planning with
Adaptation to Climate Change: Views from Ethiopia,” released in early December.

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. 


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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