By Michelle Leslie
TORONTO, Nov 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Meteorologists from around the world are meeting with women's rights activists and aid workers in Geneva to develop climate and weather services geared specifically to women.
The Nov. 5-7 conference will also discuss how to attract and promote more female scientists in meteorology and hydrology.
Michel Jarraud, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said progress had been made in improving weather forecasts and climate services to protect lives and livelihoods.
"But if we are to help communities cope with long-term climate change and the anticipated increase in hazards like floods and heat waves, then we need to do more to reach out to women with gender-sensitive services," he said.
According to WMO Assistant Secretary-General Elena Manaenkova, at recent weather information training for African farmers, only 10 percent of participants were women, even though they make up close to half the agricultural labour force.
"Disaster warnings may not reach women due to limited access to information," said Manaenkova. "Women may have different levels of using communication technology - if at all - due to lower levels of education or income."
MORE WOMEN DIE
Without the ability to receive and use basic weather information, women suffer disproportionately in disasters.
For example, when storms killed 140,000 people in Bangladesh in 1991, 90 percent of the victims were female, partly because women tend to be more homebound, the WMO said.
In 2008, when Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar, 61 percent of the 130,000 dead or missing were female.
The WMO wants to bridge the gap with "gender-based forecasting". This means developing tailored weather services through engaging and educating women, and providing them with critical information and planning tools to prepare and respond to severe weather.
The aim is to save lives and improve women's social situation.
Gender-based forecasting will use different approaches to deliver weather and climate services to women. While men tend to rely on traditional channels like mosques, women are better reached through informal means, experts say.
WORD OF MOUTH
Recent work in Cambodia by Oxfam and in Senegal by the CGIAR international farm research consortium found that timing relevant radio broadcasts for when women are most likely to be home and using cell phones to deliver SMS weather warnings in local languages are two successful methods.
Others include community-based techniques, such as using a trusted person to provide weather information to women in places like local markets and watering holes.
The design of seasonal and long-range forecasts can benefit from walking with women through their village, asking them to map out their vulnerabilities and assets.
Speaking to community elders about significant weather events yields key knowledge of climate history, and is useful for compiling a timeline of the frequency of extreme weather.
Interviewing women before and after major weather events deepens understanding of their needs and how well information was delivered. And partnering with schools to get children to share information with their parents spreads awareness.
BURDEN OF WORK
Arame Tall has spent years in the Kaffrine region of Senegal with the CGIAR, setting up climate services for women farmers.
"If there was an abrupt end in rainfall during the season, they would be handicapped," she said, adding that women are not permitted to plant crops until three to four weeks after men.
Tall found that women suffered more from changing weather patterns, as their duties were not limited to agriculture. They are also responsible for cooking, childcare and water fetching.
An increase in droughts has led to longer journeys for water, and farmland drying up. Shrinking harvests leave women and their families with less resources. More time is spent obtaining basic necessities, making already tough tasks harder.
While further research on gender-specific weather and climate services is needed, evidence from Senegal shows early successes.
For example, once women were armed with weather information, they kept children at home during heavy rainfall, potentially saving lives as children often drown in floodwaters, Tall said.
"Rather than passive observers to weather, women are now active to protect their families," she said.
(Reporting by Michelle Leslie; editing by Megan Rowling)
Michelle Leslie is a journalist and meteorologist who reports on environmental and humanitarian issues. She is based in Toronto and currently studying at the Munk School of Global Affairs.