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Story and Perspective

A Climate Emergency in Burundi—and How We Can Address It

Irénée Ndabagiye

Pathfinder Burundi

Burundi
Two children in Burundi play in stagnant water, resulting from floods caused by an overflow of water from Lake Tanganyika. Photo: Pathfinder Burundi

Pathfinder has worked with communities on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania for more than a decade, improving their resilience to environmental changes threatening health and well-being. Now, Pathfinder is poised to undertake a similar effort on the other side of the lake—in my country, Burundi—where violent rains, floods, droughts, deforestation, and unsustainable farming practices have led to a climate emergency.

Context of climate emergency

A woman gathers firewood in Burundi
A woman gathers firewood for her family in Busoni, Northern Burundi—a region most affected by drought. Photo: Pathfinder Burundi

If you were to visit the Lake Tanganyika and surrounding regions in western Burundi today, you would see the remnants of destroyed houses from flooding and landslides, and land degradation that erodes the soil and makes productive farming impossible. You might pass by internally displaced camps of people—where you will see thousands of women and children living in dangerous conditions. You might see children, malnourished and sick with malaria and mothers ill with cholera from drinking dirty water.

Women and children are particularly vulnerable to this climate emergency for several reasons:

  • Land degradation and the inability to produce viable crops has led to food insecurity, leaving us unable to tackle chronic malnutrition in Burundi. An estimated 56% of children under the age of 5 are malnourished.
  • Men are less able to make money from cultivation of their land, leading them to travel in search of work. Women and children are left at home when the violent rains cause flooding and landslides, displacing them from their homes. Women and children make up the majority of those living in camps for displaced people, where they can’t get their basic needs met, and malaria and cholera outbreaks are rampant.
  • Women are the ones who must fetch water and wood to fuel households, and they are walking longer distances in search of both. On their journey for these resources, they are more often encountering violence.

These are huge and imminent problems, but they aren’t insurmountable.

Pathfinder in Burundi

Pathfinder International ensures that the Burundian population has access to quality maternal, child, and reproductive health services that respond to their needs. Photo: Sala Lewis

As Pathfinder has learned over its many years of service, to carry out our mission and advance sexual and reproductive health and rights, we must address the unique challenges affecting the daily lives of the people we serve. Today, in Burundi, that means helping communities to adapt to the lived realities of an ever-worsening climate emergency that is taking lives and destroying the environment.

In Burundi since 2007, Pathfinder is well known for improving health care, particularly for women and girls. We’ve worked closely with the government to reduce maternal mortality, improve sexual and reproductive health care, and address the health needs of displaced people, earning the trust of local communities. Because Burundi’s climate emergency is having profound and disproportionate effects on women and girls, we are well positioned to do the important work of improving health and well-being through women-led climate resilience.

Climate resilience: how we can get there

Knowledge is power
First, we must make people aware. We must work with local climate activists to make communities aware of how deforestation and harmful agricultural practices are destroying our country. They need to understand that planting trees will not only help us meet our climate mitigation goals as a country but will save the land and the homes on which families rely.

We must engage community leaders on the health implications of climate change. Torrential rains and floods are harbingers of cholera outbreaks, mosquito infestations, and can also damage the health infrastructure, making services out of reach.

As trusted influencers, community leaders pass what they know to their communities. Pathfinder has done years of work with community leaders to influence the uptake of sexual and reproductive health care in Burundi and can do the same for climate and health resilience. Pathfinder plans to engage community leaders in encouraging the adoption of practices that further reforestation and environmental protection.

Women as decision makers
Any climate resilience program must engage women in climate-adaptation decisions. Women are most affected by climate change consequences and know their needs best. As the frontline caregivers and agriculturalists in their communities, land protection and disease prevention are of particular importance to women, and they are well prepared to offer thoughtful, local solutions for climate adaptation.

Healthy, sustainable communities
Once a basic understanding is established and solutions are devised, we need to do the work. We need to work with environmental partners and within local administrative structures to plant trees and spread climate-smart agricultural techniques. We need to make sure women and girls can access the resources they need—including food and fuel—and do so safely. Instead of burdening girls with helping to collect these essentials for their families, we need to keep them in school. We need to make sure women can reach essential health care, including reproductive services and contraception.

For resilience to the climate emergency, our solutions must be comprehensive and integrated across community networks—for example, schools planting trees, health facilities providing quality healthcare, local governance structures mobilizing people to practice climate-smart agricultural techniques.

A call for partners and support

We need to address the most imminent, life-threatening needs first—preventing cholera outbreaks, distributing malaria vaccines, and addressing the health care needs of the displaced—and then continue from there.

We must do this, and we must do it now, because the future of our country and our communities is at stake. Women are more than half of our population. The current climate emergency is exacerbating gender inequalities, yet our health as a society rests on the well-being of women. Our children are our future. If they continue to be depleted of the nutrients they need to grow and develop, our next generation will not be in a position to lead with intellect and ability.

We are looking for funders and partners to support this work—the first of its kind in Burundi. Please reach out with interest to communications@pathfinder.org.

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