When Cyclone Winston hit the South Pacific in February 2016, 200mph (325km/h) gusts of wind tore through the island nation of Fiji, wiping out entire villages. It was the strongest cyclone ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere.
According to climate change experts, warmer sea surface temperatures led to a greater storm surge in this unprecedented South Pacific cyclone.
Betty Barkha, a 25-year-old environmental leader from Fiji who serves on the board of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, says the intensity and frequency of cyclones has increased since her childhood. “For six months a year, you never know when a cyclone is going to hit,” she says.
The cyclones kept on coming after mega-storm Winston, making the 2015–16 cyclone season one of the region’s worst ever.
In storm-battered Fiji and across the world, the health effects of climate change-induced natural disasters on women and girls can be staggering, says Dr. Anthony Costello, director of the World Health Organization’s department of maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health.
“Women are the ones who are collecting the food, collecting the firewood, collecting the fodder in low-income settings,” Costello says. “They are strained by anything that affects their local environment.”
In the areas of Fiji hit hard by storms, the backyard gardens women depend on to feed their families were devastated.
“Women grow crops they need for household dinners: root grubs or chilies or just basic vegetables,” Barkha says. None of these crops remain, and women – who play a critical role in subsistence farming in Fiji – now have to find new, often less nutritious, ways to feed their families.
Buying vegetables to replace the ones lost in household gardens isn’t easy; vast swathes of farmland were destroyed, shutting down marketplaces and leaving many women – who also make up the majority of the country’s market vendors – with no source of income.
Since the prices of staple vegetables skyrocket after a cyclone, “families rely on tin meat for meals, like one tin of fish curry for a week; everybody just eats that,” Barkha says.
Circumstances like these disasters – which cut into income and food sources – put the health of pregnant women and babies at risk, says Costello. Women “have to work harder, energy expenditure goes up and their babies are therefore going to be smaller,” he says. “Everything is interconnected.”
The impact on women’s health and safety continues after storm clouds and floodwaters recede, especially in low-income communities.
“Transportation of medical supplies is challenging after any natural disaster,” says A. Tianna Scozzaro, director of the Sierra Club’s global population and environment program. “In a remote, rural community, access to supplies can quickly dry up.” This includes birth control and family planning services, essential for women’s reproductive health.
In the wake of natural disasters, women’s and girls’ physical survival is also uniquely vulnerable. Women are 14 times more likely than men to die during an extreme weather event, like a cyclone or a typhoon. Threats to their physical safety come from men – and from lack of preparation and information during weather events.
“Women are less likely to know how to swim than men,” says Scozzaro. “That’s a serious barrier to getting out of a flood zone.”
Traditional divisions of labor can mean that men hear before women about imminent flooding or natural disasters.
“If a government body like the fisheries ministry has information about when a cyclone is coming, they can easily get that to fishermen, who may largely be men in certain communities,” says Scozzaro.
For women and girls who survived Fiji’s catastrophic recent cyclone season, shelters did not provide adequate safety. “When houses are blown down, communities move into evacuation centers,” Barkha says. “These spaces aren’t as safe for women. Women are open to violence here, they are harassed.”
Barkha is concerned about the future of her country as it prepares for worsening storm seasons and sea level rise.
“We’re relocating island [communities] in Fiji,” she says. “This will have so many repercussions, because these coastal communities will have to adapt to a whole different way of living. It’s just going to add on to everything else women have to do.”