The island of Mauritius faced a major disaster in 2020 due to an oil spill. While the full extent of the impacts remains unknown, there are multiple lessons to be learnt on how the disaster unfolded and its disproportionate impacts on vulnerable coastal communities and women in particular. The island does not only need to improve the data available on socio-ecological vulnerability but these need to be combined with bold policy changes to effectively inform gender-responsive and community-based disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation.
When a disaster occurs, whether it results from man-made or natural hazards, specific groups within a society will always bear the brunt of the consequences. Gender, socio-economic status, geographical location, race, age, health status, individual mobility and several other factors will separately or combined together divide a community into groups with different abilities to cope with changes in the form of disasters and climate change impacts.
Women are recognized as a vulnerable group but also play key roles in resilience building. However, their disproportionate vulnerability to environmental change as compared to men, is linked to the way that genders are assigned distinct roles and how these gender differences are maintained and enhanced in society. Indeed, women may have less access to and control over financial resources, land, education as well as opportunities to participate in decision-making, particularly in rural settings.
However, it is important to understand gender issues in different local contexts as the way it will contribute to vulnerability will vary from place to place as it gets shaped by different factors including national policies.
A recent study also highlighted the unhelpful assumptions about gender within the climate change sphere and the importance of looking at women (and men) as heterogeneous groups with different interests and connection to the environment.
The recent oil spill in Mauritius illustrates this well and showcases an example of the importance of better understanding vulnerability and the impacts of disasters at local level.
The Mauritius oil spill and gender issues
A recent paper by two Mauritian researchers, Josheena Naggea and Emilie Wiehe and Sandy Monrose, a community leader from one of the villages affected by the oil spill, brought to light the disproportionate and compounded effects of COVID-19 and the oil spill on women fishers.
“Despite years of experience along this coast, we had not met many of these women until the oil spill. They were there the whole time, just invisible,” the authors said in the paper.
The oil spill indeed hit one of the regions that is the most dependent on marine resources for income and supplementary food sources. Fishing was also a safety net for many families who faced financial difficulties and food insecurity during the 2020 lockdown in Mauritius, which ended less than two months before the oil spill.
Women fishers were particularly affected as many of them are unregistered fishers (possibly due to administrative challenges) and as such, did not benefit from monthly compensations provided by the authorities to registered ones. Women fishers’ activities included the collection of shellfish that provided food but also income when the surplus was sold to local businesses. All these activities were compromised by the oil spill and these women and their families had to rely on external support provided for example by local NGOs.
Studies and discussions with the women impacted also revealed the importance of giving a voice to women and better understanding individual experiences and challenges when faced with such a disaster. The level of support needed by the women differed and besides the financial challenges, the emotional impacts of such disasters also cannot be ignored.
Women taking lead
As of April 2021, while fishing activities in some areas of the lagoon have very recently resumed for registered fishers, fishing and related activities still remain restricted in other places.
Many of these unregistered women fishers had no choice but to try to bounce back by looking into alternative sources of income and sustenance.
Indeed, Sandy Monrose, despite facing top-down administrative barriers in a similar project in the past, is now leading an agricultural project with other women from the southeast including women fishers. With support from the private sector which includes a rent-free portion of land, they are currently growing vegetables and already harvesting.
However, as she revealed on the phone, she remains worried about the other women and wants to do more by securing more funding which could provide a stable income for more women as they invest even more time in new agricultural ventures.
They are indeed planning on expanding activities to include apiculture and maybe even aquaponics but currently these are temporarily stalled by the second lockdown in effect in Mauritius.
Addressing policy shortcomings
As I finalise this article, I feel hope and find inspiration in these women’s leadership and adaptive capacities. But I also cannot shake off the fear that finds its roots in the top-down governance challenges that Mauritius faces. The agricultural sector is also vulnerable to climate change impacts, including increased incidence of floods that just recently affected that same region impacted by the oil spill.
There is an urgent need for bold changes in national policies and a proper follow-up in terms of effective actions that matches the needs of the most vulnerable groups in the country.
There are public discourses about climate action, nature-based solutions, addressing gender inequality and inequity and these are also mentioned in different policy documents. However, these acknowledgements in speeches and texts may not necessarily translate well into timely and adequate actions at local and national scales.
First and foremost, disaster risk reduction needs to be the priority over the current persistent approach of responding to disaster impacts. Disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation need to be integrated because in the context of Mauritius, we cannot be resilient to climate change if we are not resilient to disasters caused by natural, biological and man-made hazards (Floods, COVID-19 and oil spill).
Integrated disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation are also more important than climate change mitigation in terms of urgency and investment needs and can be more cost-effective with nature-based approaches.
But nature-based solutions have standards which include inclusivity, transparency and empowering governance processes. Not all ‘green’ projects can be and should be stamped with that label if these standards are not met. And finally, it will be impossible to implement effective disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation strategies that are gender-responsive if we do not start with proper participatory vulnerability assessments that include detailed gender analyses. Using evidence from socio-economic and ecological studies as guides and baselines to design effective resilience-building initiatives is currently not the norm in Mauritius.