Exploring the Nexus between Gender, Climate Security and Migration

By Claire Harrison

By Claire Harrison

In late January 2022, following a series of Houthi rebel strikes on its territory, the United Arab Emirates targeted several civilian infrastructure sites in Yemen that included a water facility.[1] Nine days later, an investigation by The New York Times revealed that in March 2017, the United States targeted a dam in Syria that was on the “no strike list.”[2] Both events circulated in the media on the same day, pointing to a historical trend of weaponizing water in war. As climate change further exacerbates water insecurity in much of the world, the disproportionate impacts of water scarcity on women and girls must be pushed further into the spotlight.

The January strike was not the first time the Saudi-led coalition, of which the UAE is a member, hit civilian targets, and specifically water sites in Yemen.[3] Such attacks have outsized effects on a country that suffers from climate change-induced water scarcity, lack of clean water access, and rampant water-borne diseases.[4] The January 11 strike destroyed a water reservoir in the Sahar district of  Sa’da Governorate, which supplies water to over 130,000 people.[5] The 2017 attack in Syria knocked out the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River north of Raqqa, controlled at the time by the Islamic State. It thus became a high value target, despite not being on any official U.S.-led coalition target list. The New York Times report revealed that the Tabqa Dam bombing took place after a top-secret U.S. Special Operations unit used a procedural shortcut reserved for emergencies to circumvent the chain of command and drop the bombs despite official warnings against the action.[6] In spite of the horrific humanitarian implications, flooding tens of thousands of people out of an area and depriving many more of electrical power and water supply may well be a tempting strategy for state and non-state combatants alike. Indeed, U.S. Central Command told The New York Times the bombs “prevented ISIS from weaponizing” the dam against the people of Northeast Syria, demonstrating how the same logic around water could apply to both sides of a conflict.[7]

Furthermore, grievances over water insecurity and lack of access were one of several factors culminating in the 2011 revolutions in Syria and Yemen. As freshwater resources evaporate and water scarcity becomes a truly existential threat for many populations, the monetary and identity value of water resources will skyrocket. This pattern of targeting water resources will accelerate, and water will become a driving factor for conflict. To be sure, many of the water scarcity challenges exacerbated by climate change are also attributable to weak governance and obstruction. However, both man-made and climate-driven accelerants of water scarcity create a negative feedback loop, exacerbating each other and driving up the value of water. As the earth heats up and resources evaporate, clean and safe water is often the first to disappear, leaving entire villages and sometimes countries arid. The price of water rises in parallel, and it is the lack of water that causes desperation and potential violence, not the cause of this scarcity.

When water becomes scarce, it is more likely to be monopolized and weaponized by groups seeking to capitalize upon desperation and fear as a means for legitimization and power. In many cases, the government’s inability to adequately meet its peoples’ needs further pushes people into jeopardy. This dynamic contributed to the entrenchment of groups like Al Shabab and Boko Haram in water-poor areas and their effective manipulation of water security as a recruitment tactic and funding mechanism.[8] It is also what made civilian water infrastructure compelling targets in Syria and Yemen.

When a water crisis strikes, the entire population suffers, but climate change and water scarcity extract the highest price from women and girls. This is especially true for those who are already left behind or made invisible by the circumstances of conflict. At the opening session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women’s annual meeting on March 14, 2022, Undersecretary General Sima Bahous explained: “Women suffer most when local natural resources including food and water come under threat, and have fewer ways to adapt.”[9] In many water-poor countries, women and people who identify as women are heads of households and devote a significantly higher proportion of their time to unpaid domestic activities. Most of these activities are water-intensive, such as laundry, cooking, and cleaning. This means women often have a greater role in day-to-day clean water management and provision and understand the stakes, while men are more likely to control the financing and distribution. Thus, when water becomes scarce, it is women who are left to deal with the practical implications of water insecurity.

Further, when conflict breaks out, women in these situations are impacted in ways citizens of water-rich countries often do not consider. In countries where weak government institutions translate to a lack of adequate and equitable water management, there is often one source of water shared between communities and at a great distance from the home. It is frequently women’s responsibility to make the journey to collect remote freshwater. When water decreases in availability, this trek becomes longer and consumes more energy and time, leaving women less able to address additional responsibilities and less able to pursue personal means of economic fulfillment. This burden is even greater for rural women who are already more likely to be further from water sources, distribution sites, or the reaches of government assistance. When conflict erupts, not only do these water sources themselves become sites of violent clashes, but the journey to obtain water becomes increasingly dangerous.

The disproportionate impact on women and girls is evident in places such as the Syrian city of Raqqa. As a result of the U.S.-led coalition and the Islamic State both targeting water resources around Raqqa, returnees to a liberated city suffered shortages of clean running water and sanitation facilities. For the women returnees, these problems led to a number of specific gynecological problems like urinary tract infections and cystitis.[10] Children filled clinics in Raqqa city, plagued with respiratory illnesses, infections, and gastrointestinal distress, and one of the main causes was dirty water.[11] In Yemen, water scarcity combined with ineffective governance in government-controlled areas and Houthi control in other regions increased stress on women and girls, who bore the brunt of responsibility for collecting water and rationing its use in the household.[12] This in turn led to women increasingly dealing with health issues associated with expending the energy, time, and stress required to obtain water when food is scarce. Women were forced to stand for long periods of time in scorching heat and were exposed to sexual harassment and violence, depending on the time of day and length of time spent collecting water.[13] COVID-19 has only made this crisis in Yemen worse.

But this intimate connection between women, water, and climate change also holds the potential keys to resolution. When women are the community arbiters of water distribution and are most intimately involved with the movement of water resources and consequences of water scarcity in day-to-day life, they also become sources of vital contextual knowledge necessary to a conflict-sensitive approach to conflict arbitration, mitigation, and prevention. As the frameworks for water peace developed over the last few decades become less relevant and effective, there is an opportunity for the international community to practice climate diplomacy and push for new conflict resolution frameworks inclusive of gender and resource scarcity.

The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Women In International Security or its affiliates. 

Claire Harrison is a 2021 WIIS Next Generation Scholar, a national security professional, and a research analyst. Her work focuses on climate security in the MENA region, institutional capacity building, and natural resources as a catalyst for violent conflict. She has previously served as a Research Associate in the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses, as well as in various Middle East policy research roles at the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the State Department. Harrison holds an MA in Strategic Studies and International Economics from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, an ML in Chinese Politics and Foreign Policy from Tsinghua University in Beijing, and a BA in Middle East Studies and Political Science from Sciences Po Paris.


[1] Colm Quinn, “Houthis Strike Abu Dhabi as Yemen War Drags On,” Foreign Policy, January 18, 2022, https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/01/18/houthis-uae-abu-dhabi-yemen/; Shuaib Almosawa, Vivian Yee, and Isabella Kwai, “Yemen’s Houthi Militia Claims Rare Military Strike on U.A.E.,” The New York Times, January 17, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/17/world/middleeast/uae-attack-yemen-houthi.html.

[2] Dave Phillips, Azmat Khan, and Eric Schmitt, “A Dam in Syria was on a ‘No-Strike’ List. The U.S. Bombed It Anyway,” The New York Times, January 20, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/20/us/airstrike-us-isis-dam.html.

[3] “Why did the Houthis attack the UAE? Everything you need to know,” Al Jazeera, January 31, 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/1/31/explainer-a-simple-guide-to-the-uae-houthi-escalation.

[4] Collin Douglas, A Storm Without Rain: Yemen, Water, Climate Change, and Conflict, Briefer No. 40: August 3, 2016; “Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation,” from Yemen, UNDP, https://www.ye.undp.org/content/yemen/en/home/sustainable-development-goals/goal-6-clean-water-and-sanitation.html#:~:text=Less%20than%2055%20per%20cent,many%20sub%2DSaharan%20African%20countries; WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, “Cholera Situation in Yemen,” Document no. WHOEM/CSR/434/E, World Health Organization, April 2021.

[5] “Press briefing notes on Yemen,” delivered by Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Ravina Shamdasani, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, January 18, 2022, https://www.ohchr.org/en/2022/01/press-briefing-notes-yemen.

[6] Phillips et. al., “A Dam in Syria was on the ‘No-Strike List’,” The New York Times.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Halima Gikandi, “The group behind Nairobi’s recent terror attack recruits young people from many faiths. Officials can’t stop it,” GlobalPost, January 25, 2019, https://theworld.org/stories/2019-01-25/group-behind-nairobi-s-recent-terror-attack-recruits-young-people-many-faiths; Mervyn Piesse, “Boko Haram: Exacerbating and Benefiting From Food and Water Insecurity in the Lake Chad Basin,” Future Directions International, September 19, 2017, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Boko-Haram-Exacerbating-and-Benefiting-From-Food-and-Water-Insecurity-in-the-Lake-Chad-Basin_0.pdf; Laura Heaton and Nichole Sobeki, “Somalia’s Climate for Conflict,” The GroundTruth Project, April 19, 2017, https://thegroundtruthproject.org/somalia-conflict-climate-change/.

[9] Edith M. Lederer, “UN says women pay the highest price in conflict, now in Ukraine,” Associated Press, March 15, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-climate-united-nations-general-assembly-afghanistan-business-65f0ac994ed0a270b1bff5c40106f509.

[10] Arianna Pagani and Sara Manisera, “‘The world forgot us’: Women and healthcare in ruined Raqqa,” The New Humanitarian, January 8, 2019, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/photo-feature/2019/01/08/world-forgot-us-women-and-healthcare-ruined-raqqa.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ashraf Al-Muraqab, “A daily struggle to fetch water,” Yemen Times, September 17, 2012, https://reliefweb.int/report/yemen/daily-struggle-fetch-water.

[13] Margaret Habib, “COVID-19 Exacerbates the Effects of Water Shortages on Women in Yemen,” Wilson Center, August 20, 2020, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/covid-19-exacerbates-effects-water-shortages-women-yemen.

By Tristen Thakar, University of Pittsburgh WIIS Chapter

Since mid-June, high levels of rain have unleashed catastrophic flash floods along the Kabul and Indus rivers, leaving over a third of Pakistan submerged in water. This has displaced over 7.6 million people throughout the country, including around 598,000 Afghans living in refugee camps.[1] Along with countless people losing their homes, over 1,500 people have lost their lives, including around 600 children.[2] Everyone in Pakistan is being affected by these floods, but pregnant women are being hit the hardest.

The United Nations Population Fund estimates that around 650,000 pregnant women and young girls have been affected by this disaster; in September 2022 alone, around 73,000 women were expected to give birth.[3] Many of these women need things like prenatal care and the presence of skilled medical staff, not to mention the special medical support for the child or mother that might be needed post-birth. All this is extremely difficult to find. In addition, it is still common for many women in Pakistan to deliver at home, and with many women currently living in plastic tents after losing their homes, the need for safe spaces to give birth in the coming weeks or months will be very important.

Meeting the other needs of these women will not be easy, either. Many pregnant women around the country struggle to find even basic food and clean water. Without homes to give birth in, many of them are scrambling to find other options. Traveling to healthcare facilities is difficult. The World Health Organization reports that of the 1,460 health facilities that were damaged by the summer floods, 432 were completely demolished.[4] Healthcare workers, essential medicines, and other medical supplies are in short supply, which means that many pregnant women will not receive the full treatment they might need even if they can reach a working healthcare location. This puts pregnant women in a very difficult situation.

The key point to remember, however, is that the summer floods have exacerbated this situation, not created it. For years, Pakistani women have faced the same medical issues due to weak healthcare infrastructure, a continuing rise in birth rates, and lack of services throughout the country. As a result, Pakistan has the highest maternal mortality ratio (MMR) in South Asia and has made less progress on this front than other developing countries outside of the region. Studies have shown that between 2010 and 2018, 91,076 children were born in Pakistan, with an MMR during that time of 319 per 100,000 as compared to the average of 124 per 100,000 in comparable countries.[5]

These statistics show that Pakistan was already behind many other countries when it came to the care of pregnant women, even before the floods worsened their situation. The Pakistani government must make the improvement of its healthcare infrastructure a top priority during the rebuilding of the country. This is not just because it is right from a humanitarian perspective; it is a key element for economic development. Studies have shown that deficient birth outcomes such as preterm delivery and low birth weights lead to high healthcare costs, which negatively affects a state’s economic development.[6] Because of this, the Pakistani government should act with some urgency to better support these women. The rebuilding and improving of the Pakistani healthcare system should focus on four things: overseeing the construction of modern healthcare facilities;  improving roads so women–and all citizens–have reliable ways of getting treatment; working with industry-leading companies to create reliable medical supply chains so pregnant women and their babies can receive the medications they need; and creating new government programs to support pregnant women throughout their pregnancy and post birth.[7] The introduction of all of these elements will make a major impact on the lives of pregnant women.

In conclusion, the floods throughout Pakistan in the summer of 2022 have been tragic and life-changing for many people, but they should also be seen as a time for the Pakistani government to improve conditions for all Pakistani citizens and to make a serious effort to help women, especially pregnant ones. They need a lot of support and will continue to need this support long after the flooding subsides.

The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Women In International Security or its affiliates. 


[1] “Pakistan: Floods – Jul 2022 | ReliefWeb.” Accessed October 7, 2022. https://reliefweb.int/disaster/fl-2022- 000254-pak.

[2] “Pakistan: Floods – Jul 2022 | ReliefWeb.” Accessed October 7, 2022. https://reliefweb.int/disaster/fl-2022- 000254-pak.

[3] Human Rights Watch. “Flood-Affected Women in Pakistan Need Urgent Help,” September 2, 2022.  https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/09/02/flood-affected-women-pakistan-need-urgent-help

[4] Baloch, Shah Meer. “‘The Hospital Has Nothing’: Pakistan’s Floods Put Pregnant Women in Danger.” The  Guardian, September 14, 2022, sec. World news. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/sep/14/the-hospital has-nothing-pakistans-floods-put-pregnant-women-in-danger.

[5] Aziz, Aleha, Sarah Saleem, Tracy L. Nolen, Nousheen Akber Pradhan, Elizabeth M. McClure, Saleem Jessani, Ana L.  Garces, et al. “Why Are the Pakistani Maternal, Fetal and Newborn Outcomes so Poor Compared to Other Low and  Middle-Income Countries?” Reproductive Health 17, no. 3 (December 17, 2020): 190.


[6] Aziz, Aleha, Sarah Saleem, Tracy L. Nolen, Nousheen Akber Pradhan, Elizabeth M. McClure, Saleem Jessani, Ana L.  Garces, et al. “Why Are the Pakistani Maternal, Fetal and Newborn Outcomes so Poor Compared to Other Low and  Middle-Income Countries?” Reproductive Health 17, no. 3 (December 17, 2020): 190.


[7] Gajate Garrido, Gissele. “The Impact of Adequate Prenatal Care in a Developing Country: Testing the WHO  Recommendations.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2011. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1879464.


Aziz, Aleha, Sarah Saleem, Tracy L. Nolen, Nousheen Akber Pradhan, Elizabeth M. McClure,  Saleem Jessani, Ana L. Garces, et al. “Why Are the Pakistani Maternal, Fetal and Newborn  Outcomes so Poor Compared to Other Low and Middle-Income Countries?” Reproductive  Health 17, no. 3 (December 17, 2020): 190. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12978-020-01023-5.

Baloch, Shah Meer. “‘The Hospital Has Nothing’: Pakistan’s Floods Put Pregnant Women in  Danger.” The Guardian, September 14, 2022, sec. World news.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/sep/14/the-hospital-has-nothing-pakistans-floods put-pregnant-women-in-danger.

Human Rights Watch. “Flood-Affected Women in Pakistan Need Urgent Help,” September 2,  2022. https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/09/02/flood-affected-women-pakistan-need-urgent help.

Gajate Garrido, Gissele. “The Impact of Adequate Prenatal Care in a Developing Country:  Testing the WHO Recommendations.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2011.


“Pakistan: Floods – Jul 2022 | ReliefWeb.” Accessed October 7, 2022.


“Pakistan: Floods – Jul 2022 | ReliefWeb.” Accessed October 7, 2022.


Student Blog

By Chantal de Jonge Oudraat & Michael E. Brown

This article originally appeared on New Security Beat.

Gender issues, climate change, and security problems are interconnected in complex and powerful ways. Unfortunately, some of these connections have not received enough attention from scholars, policy analysts, and policymakers. This has serious, real-world implications for the promotion of gender equality, the mitigation of climate change, and the advancement of peace and security—three priorities that everyone should care about.  

The linkage that has received the most attention is the connection between climate change and security problems. Scholars have studied environment-security dynamics for decades and, in recent years, both the climate studies and the security studies communities have explored this linkage: This exploration has been a two-way street. Moreover, this recognition of climate-security linkages has crossed over from the scholarly and analytic worlds to policy communities.

For example, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has emphasized that climate change is “an aggravating factor for instability, conflict and terrorism.” In October 2021, the U.S. government released a suite of reports to elevate climate change as a policy priority in US foreign and security policy.

Unfortunately, in most policy discussions on climate change and security, gender perspectives are missing in action.  

This is not to say that gender issues have been ignored by everyone. Since the mid-1990s, feminists, gender scholars, and women’s rights activists have worked to advance understanding of gender-climate and gender-security issues, and they have established that these linkages are powerful. They have also pushed for policy actions.

Their efforts have led, in particular, to the adoption of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) in 2000 and nine subsequent WPS resolutions in the 2000s and 2010s. National governments have adopted National Action Plans (NAPs) to integrate and implement WPS priorities in national security policies.

Starting in 2013, gender has been integrated into the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) by requiring annual reporting on the gender composition of state delegations and UNFCC-constituted bodies.

In October 2021, the US Government released its the first-ever National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equalitywhich emphasized the importance of elevating gender equality in humanitarian relief and security issues as well as promoting the link between gender equity and climate change responses.

Women’s rights activists have also pushed the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) to make climate change and disaster risk reduction a priority theme at its 66th session in March 2022.

All of this is significant progress.

The problem is that almost all of this effort has come from gender champions—gender scholars, analysts, and activists: It has been a one-way street. For example, the gender equity and equality priorities developed in the U.S. gender strategy were not included in the suite of reports released by the U.S. government on foreign and security policy.

Two decades into the 21st century, gender issues are still routinely ignored by the security policy and climate communities. This has profound policy implications because security policies and climate actions tend to be high-priority and relatively well-funded endeavors. This is where the action is, in terms of policy attention and resources.

Even relatively simple and visible commitments—such as ensuring gender balances in policymaking bodies and national delegations—have been poorly implemented. At the COP26 conference in Glasgow in late 2021, for example, women’s representation across the meeting’s sixteen constituted bodies was only 33 percent. The seriousness of policy commitments can also be measured by the amount of resources governments allocate to these commitments. In 2018, only 22 percent of WPS NAPs had allocated budgets, and disturbingly, average budget allocations for WPS NAPs are on a downward trend since 2014. Few countries have introduced gender budgeting—that is, allocation of specific resources to gender priorities and initiatives. A final problem is a worldwide lack of effort to collect sex-disaggregated data across an array of social, economic, political, environmental, and security issues.

The security and climate policy communities tend to be comprised of people—mainly men—who are almost completely lacking in gender expertise or even gender policy awareness. As a result, the gender dimensions of security and climate issues are usually not understood, prioritized, integrated, or even considered in security and climate policy packages. It follows, of course, that gendered risks and dangers—affecting more than 7.8 billion people around the world—are not being adequately addressed.

The sad irony is that this gender-obliviousness has tremendous implications for stability and security. Gender scholars have established—in one of the most important social science findings of the past two decades—that gender inequality is strongly associated with instability and conflict, both within and between countries. Gender scholars have also shown that gender factors will be critical to the development of effective adaptation and mitigation policies, as climate change progresses. Ignoring gender, therefore, is misguided not just in terms of gender outcomes, but for security and climate outcomes as well.

The gender-security and gender-climate connections—as well as the triple nexus of gender, climate and security—need to be developed more systematically. To date, the gender studies community has taken the lead in studying these connections and developing policy ideas. The security and climate communities need to recognize that they have a stake in these connections as well, and they need to become proactive in developing gender-focused initiatives. And it is not enough to talk the talk: policymakers have to follow through with policy implementation and gender-targeted budget commitments as well.

This blog is based on Chantal de Jonge Oudraat and Michael E. Brown’s contribution to 21st Century Diplomacy: Foreign Policy is Climate PolicyGender, Climate Change, and Security: Making the Connections

Chantal de Jonge Oudraat is a Wilson Center Fellow in the Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP). She was President of Women In International Security (WIIS) from 2013 to 2021.

Michael E. Brown is a Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs. He was Dean of the Elliott School from 2005 to 2015.

Sources: The University of Sydney, The White House, United Nations. 

Photo Credit: Unidentified women draw water from the well and take it to their homes in rural areas of Jaisalmer, India, courtesy of Yavuz Sariyildiz, Shutterstock.com.