From the US and Senegal, stories of climate survival

By Anna Kramer
Speakers Vor Gana Seck, left, and Sharon Hanshaw answer audience questions at a speaking event at the Kansas City Public Library.

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Even as the US presidential candidates continued to debate possible solutions to global warming, two women leaders traveled the US in early October 2008, sharing stories about how they've taken on climate change in their communities.

They were featured speakers on a week-long Oxfam America tour, which passed through five US cities on its way from New Mexico to Missouri. Inspired by Oxfam's Sisters on the Planet initiative—and supported by groups like CARE and the League of Women Voters—the tour focused on the human face of climate change here and abroad, with an emphasis the ways the US can help vulnerable communities survive the crisis.

"Pollution, greenhouse gases, they don't respect boundaries," said Voré Gana Seck, the speaker from Senegal. "This is a global problem that needs global solutions."

Battling past and future storms

Sharon Hanshaw, executive director of Coastal Women for Change and one of Oxfam's Sisters on the Planet, spoke about her personal losses from Hurricane Katrina, as well as the storm's lasting effects on her home town of Biloxi, Mississippi.

Speaking at the Kansas City, Missouri, public library, Hanshaw explained that it's not just past hurricanes that concern her community, but the ones ahead, which are predicted to intensify. "This year we've had four hurricanes in the last six months," she said. "Gustav was called a dud, but it still flooded our houses."

In Biloxi, she said, hurricanes not only wreak physical damage, but also add to the burdens of people already among America's poorest.

"Times were hard pre-Katrina, and now it's even worse; prices have gone up," said Hanshaw. "We still have people living in trailers, no healthcare, no childcare, no public library. We don't need a handout from the government. We need infrastructure to help our community live again."

Refugees from a climate war

Seck, Executive Director of Green Senegal and president of the international NGO coalition CONGAD, highlighted the common ground between Senegal and the Gulf Coast. In both places, she said, the poorest families are the ones to bear the burden.

At an event at the Omaha, Nebraska, public library, Seck compared the effects of climate change to those of a war: "You can't produce enough food, you can't harvest. You don't have enough money. You can't send your kids to school."

For local farming families, she said, a decrease in rainfall means that staple crops like rice, millet, and vegetables often fail to reach maturity, leaving families with less food to eat and fewer extra crops to sell. To earn a better living, some of these farmers migrate to already-crowded cities like Dakar, where floods and poor sanitation are leading to an increase in water-borne diseases like cholera.

Others join the ranks of the "climate refugees": teens and young adults who leave their villages for Spain or the Canary Islands, looking to earn money to send to their families back home. Hundreds of these young people have died while attempting ocean crossings in small, fragile boats.

"In Algeciras, Spain, there is a burial ground called the "Cemetery of the Unknown People," said Seck. "These are our environmental refugees. They are the unknown."

Solutions for survival

Despite these hardships, both speakers' organizations are leading efforts to help their communities survive the crisis.

"The first thing we have to do is be resilient," said Hanshaw, whose group distributes hurricane preparedness kits—containing fresh water, food, insurance papers, and flashlights—to Biloxi seniors and families. They're also offering affordable child care options to help women in the community return to work.

Hanshaw's organization also trains local women to go to Washington, DC, and "tell the stories that are not being told." Their message to legislators: "We're still here. We're going to be here. And climate change affects all of us."

Seck's group teaches Senegalese farmers new techniques that help crops grow in a drier climate, like drip irrigation systems and faster-maturing seeds. Seck showed photos of the successful projects in action: first a riot of green seedlings, then tall plants in orderly rows, flourishing beneath a wide blue sky.

So far, she said, these innovative methods are only in place in a few villages. But with the support of wealthier countries like the US, projects like these could help farmers throughout the region.

Hope in a tough century

Many audience members at these events signed up for Oxfam's online climate change action team, which provides ways to directly influence US legislators on the issue.

For some, the speakers' words brought a change in perspective. "I came here expecting to hear about Africa, but I didn't expect to hear Sharon's story, right in our backyard," said Lillian Pardo, a retired physician who attended the Kansas City speaking event. "You don't see this on the news."

Andrew Jameton, a professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, was the last to speak in a question and answer session in Omaha. "I want to fight this, and a lot of people feel the same way, but it will be a tough century," he said, adding that, because of the speakers' words, "I'm not optimistic—but I'm hopeful."