The overwhelming scientific evidence pointing to both severe and subtle changes in the earth’s climate due to the ongoing warming of our atmosphere is increasingly undeniable.
For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that by 2020, 75 to 250 million people in Africa will lack ready access to drinking water and crop yields of rain-fed agriculture could decrease by up to 50 percent, putting millions of people at increased risk of malnutrition. While such consequences of severe changes in weather patterns, including more severe droughts and floods, are easily documented, the social consequences of climate change are more diverse and less tangible. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that these consequences will be severe and lasting.
The experience of communities in the Kishapu district in north-central Tanzania offers just one example of how a changing climate can place stress on the social structures of a community. In this case, extreme drought exacerbated existing gender and age-based discrimination, resulting in the needless deaths of grandmothers throughout the district.
In 2006, the Kishapu district faced severe drought which led to food shortages. The drought led to water scarcity so extreme that communities would re-use water over and over again for hand-washing, bathing and cooking. Not surprisingly, the rate of child mortality from water-borne diseases increased dramatically. Without proper education to understand that the deaths were likely caused by dirty water, members of the community began blaming the deaths of the children on “witches” among them. Identifying a “witch” as a cause for a community’s ills is a common practice of traditional religion in Tanzania.
Already viewed as dispensable because they were no longer able to bear children, the grandmothers in the communities were quickly identified as “witches”. The redness of their eyes, caused by old age and the fumes from cattle-dung powered fire pits, helped community members conclude that they were possessed, and thus, witches. Many grandmothers in the Kishapu district were brutally killed by members of their own communities at the peak of the water and food crisis in 2006.
Donors, including the Tanganyika Christian Refugee Service (TCRS), responded with emergency aid in 2006 and continue to work with the communities to address the two underlying causes of the crisis – the lack of water and food. TCRS helped educate and train villagers on how to harvest rainwater with tanks and sand dams. They also educated local villagers about their district government processes so that they would be empowered to lobby their local representative for more resources and assistance. TCRS continues to work with the local villagers to establish a small agricultural school that they hope will be completed by 2012. And, perhaps most importantly, TCRS continues to educate the communities about the dangers of dirty water – a simple effort that may help save the lives of many red-eyed grandmothers in Kishapu.
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