As governments from more than 190 countries descend on Paris next week to negotiate a new climate change agreement, they will have to consider both scientific and political realities. But to come up with a plan that works, they will need to fully grasp how climate change is already affecting the lives of people like Mathilda, a schoolgirl growing up in one of the poorest regions of Kenya.
Mathilda, 15, is Turkana, an indigenous people that has survived by raising livestock in a semiarid region bordering Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda. Mathilda’s school, like most schools in the area, doesn’t have access to clean water and sanitation facilities for its students. So instead of spending their whole school day learning, Mathilda and her classmates start their day by walking two hours to the closest riverbed to dig for water — water that is anyway most likely not safe to drink. They do the same thing again in the afternoon, so they often lose around half of their school day fetching water.
Mathilda has to do the same thing outside of school hours to get the water her family needs at home, leaving her little time for studying. Because of rising temperatures, water has become harder and harder to find here, and people have to spend more and more time trying to find it.
This is just one small example of how climate change is making it harder to realize people’s rights to water, education and security, a reality reflected in the current draft of the treaty under consideration in Paris, which makes reference to the need to ensure rights, including gender equality and the rights of indigenous peoples.
Yet it will be up to the negotiators in Paris to make certain that this language isn’t sidelined or cut, and that these rights become central to the future international agreement on climate change. Unfortunately, at the final meetings on the draft treaty a month ago in Bonn, most higher-income countries, including the members of the EU and the United States, remained silent on the issue.
This is despite studies showing that communities already facing marginalization — and those that are already vulnerable, such as women and children — disproportionately suffer from climate change. This is especially the case for those in countries with limited resources and fragile ecosystems.
Meanwhile, women constitute the majority of the world’s poor, and so are more dependent for their livelihood on natural resources that are threatened by climate change. And around the world, women and girls are the most likely to be responsible for fetching water for their families — sometimes, like Mathilda, walking very long distances.
This exposes them to danger, including sexual violence along the route, and leaves them with less time to attend school, earn money, learn new skills or simply to rest.
If, as in Turkana, climate change makes certain water sources less reliable, women and girls will have to walk farther every day. And, according to a recent World Bank study on climate change, children in Africa affected by drought are less likely to complete primary school.
The champions of including language making human rights central to the efforts to combat climate change in the draft agreement are primarily countries such as the Philippines, Mexico, Chile and Costa Rica, nations which are already experiencing the effects of climate change and struggling to address them. They are able to see the negative effects on their citizens of a failure to recognize human rights as a central element to an effective response.
But the fact is that the effects of climate change will be felt globally and the proposed text goes no further than recognizing human rights obligations that already exist. Every country that will be at the climate change negotiations is already a party to several international human rights treaties.
In Paris, they should live up to their obligations to support a treaty that addresses those rights, including for the world’s most marginalized and vulnerable people.
For Mathilda and her classmates, this could mean improved access to water and sanitation facilities at their school, more time to study and better opportunities for their futures
And despite the difficulties she is facing trying to get an education, Mathilda says she hopes to serve her community in a leadership role when she grows up. “All of the world’s leaders need to work together to solve this problem that we are all facing,” she said.