Under a blood red sky, my family and I were at day 186 of COVID-19 lockdown in Santa Cruz, California. One crisis was exacerbating another—a pandemic converged with wildfires—taking lives and livelihoods, destroying trees, leaving people homeless, and making it difficult to breathe.
Although the fires are an environmental crisis and the COVID-19 is a public health crisis, they both have the same roots—and that’s climate change.
Droughts in 2017 killed 163 million of California’s trees, leading to massive fires that cost the state billions of dollars—a total of $40 billion in 2017 and 2018 combined. This year, in just one storm, 10,000 lightning strikes ignited over 550 fires in a state emerging from another year of record-breaking temperatures. The smoke was so harmful that unless we were evacuating, we had to stay inside.
There are now clear connections between how we have treated our environment and the movement of diseases between wildlife and humans—and COVID-19 is illustrative of that.
The inextricable links between our health and our environment make me think about the work I do every day for Pathfinder International. I advise programs in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia that marry health and environmental interventions through holistic programs. In places often subject to extreme climate change-induced crises, like flooding, prolonged droughts, and swarms of locusts, our Women-Led Community Resilience program helps communities to survive, adapt, and even thrive in the face of these crises.
Women-Led Community Resilience focuses on the needs of women, girls, and their entire communities by:
- Improving access to health services, including reproductive health care and contraception.
- Diversifying environmentally friendly livelihood opportunities.
- Improving sanitation and hygiene in households, schools, and communities.
- Improving women’s access to savings and loans groups.
- Building communities’ capacities to manage natural resources in sustainable ways.
- Supporting programs to keep girls in school.
- Strengthening efforts to improve food security and nutrition.
In East Africa, these programs have reforested deteriorated landscapes, reduced pollution, protected lakes, made food supplies more sustainable through improved fishing practices and climate-smart agricultural techniques, kept girls in schools, and enabled women to deliver their babies safely. As a result, communities from the shores of Lake Tanganyika to the Lake Victoria Basin are more resilient to crises.
Through this work, I’ve learned that people are incredibly resourceful and adaptable. I am optimistic that more of us will be as resourceful and adaptable as possible in fighting climate change—starting now.
COVID-19 has given us all more time to think—about what the science tells us, and how we can apply some of the incredible, innovative ideas that are now widely known to address climate change in different geographies, industries, at different scales, and in all aspects of life. While some of the changes do require significant systemic shifts, others only require small, thoughtful actions.
Every change we make in Uganda, Kenya, or Tanzania improves life for all. Climate change has no boundaries. This interconnectedness was never more palpable as my friends on the East Coast looked up and saw California’s smoke in their skies.
Climate change is the most powerful and all-encompassing challenge we have before us. We know this at Pathfinder and that’s why we have invested in making women, girls, their communities, and our entire planet more resilient to this threat.
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