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climate change, ethics, Emmanuel Levinas, water, women

Finitude and Feminist Thought

There will be a time, in most of the world, when the last well goes dry. And this is because so much of the world lives already on the brink of a dreadful thirst, a life only made tolerable because women travel great distances to find the wells or the rivers or the ditches, scoop up the water, and bring it home. They carry it on their backs, or their heads, or on their hips, like a child. In Africa alone, women walk forty billion hours a year to bring this water home.1

In sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls are responsible for 72 percent of all the water collected. This means that women spend a significant proportion of their lives simply carrying water. And as the climate steadily gets warmer, droughts will become more frequent and water will become more salinized, harder to find, and farther away from habitation. As it now stands, clean water is already unavailable to over 633 million people—one in ten of the people of the earth. Diseases from contaminated water kill on the aggregate more people than any form of violence, including wars and acts of terror. Forty-three percent of these people are children under age five.2 Water is a large part of the embodied life of women who bear these infants. Without abundant water, it is hard to carry a pregnancy safely to term, to give birth, nurse, or bathe children, or to [End Page 139] launder clothes and diapers—all details for which women, and women alone, are largely responsible.

According to a 2002 report, "gender-related inequalities are pervasive in the developing world. Although women account for almost 80 per cent of the agricultural sector in Africa, they remain vulnerable and poor. Seventy per cent of the 1.3 billion people in the developing world living below the threshold of poverty are women."3 Consider the scenario in the eastern Mediterranean region in 2009 when the UN Intergovernmental Agency on Climate Change was gathering its findings for its next report. The project director on the study, Dr. Yousef Meslmani, was known to be a loyal government official, a scientist charged with studying his country's climate. It took him five years to write and submit his report, and his careful account described the northern portion of Syria, where unprecedented declines in the water table had left the wells all dry. Entire villages had been abandoned; fields of peppers seemed to have vanished; and the rice croplands were shifting under the yellow winds. In the 164-page document with a picture of the country's most ancient and beautiful city on the front, Meslmani explained that thousands of families had left the dying farms, which had once provided 30 percent of the entire gross domestic product, and were streaming into cities. These people needed water, sanitation, health care, schools, and jobs. The report described a region staggering under a drought that had lasted for four years, the worst drought ever recorded in the history of the country, one of the world's most fertile areas, the cradle of human civilization.4

But the president in question was not responsive and the country in question is Syria. And as a million and half internal refugees crowded outside of Aleppo and Damascus, the protests grew, as the displaced demanded water. Two years later, thousands of frustrated, landless farmers—a full quarter of the country's population—staged protests in the Arab Spring of 2011. But unlike other states of the region—Libya, Egypt, or Tunisia—President Bashar al-Assad refused to meet with the protestors and bombed their neighborhoods. And thus began the civil war. Meslmani's report was the last that Syria sent as a part of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. After its publication, Meslmani joined the five million refugees who left the country. Syrians may have been the first climate refugees of the current era, but they were not the last.

Consider Tengger, China, where the Gobi...


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