What the Zika epidemic means for gender and urban adaptation planning in Brazil

This post first appeared on The Nature of Cities.

The end of Zika doesn’t begin with the eradication of a mosquito: it requires a systemic, intersectional analysis to help identify how social, economic, urban, health and other structures shape women’s lives, power, and their vulnerability to climate impacts and access to resources.

Almost exactly two years ago, South America was swept up in a public health crisis that affected hundreds of thousands of women across the continent. In Brazil, more than 2,600 children were born with the microcephaly and other health complications resulting from the viral infection Zika. Brazilians quickly became accustomed to the unfamiliar name of the disease, which spread fast across the North East of the country and across borders to Colombia and Venezuela. Zika, a mosquito-borne viral disease that emerged in South America in 2015, is carried by the mosquito Aedis aegypti and can also be transmitted sexually.


As someone who works with climate change adaptation, I was particularly struck by the climatic and systemic elements of the epidemic. In the North East of Brazil, the area most affected by Zika, droughts are not uncommon and are intensifying with climate change. Many households, particularly among the poor, store water to deal with shortages that result from inefficiencies in urban water supply. Struck by abnormally high temperatures in the region, the combination of heat, stored water, and poor urban infrastructure provided fertile breeding ground for mosquitoes. Studies published since the crisis have helped establish that the El Niño contributed to unusually high temperatures in the region and that climate change is a contributing factor to Zika.


Another element which affected me was the evident gender inequality that marked the health crisis. As a middle-class white woman living in São Paulo, I felt far removed from the Zika crisis despite the incessant national and international media coverage and messages of concern from my friends abroad. I was not concerned with my exposure to Zika. I do not, however, live close to informal settlements or suffer from water shortages or poor urban development, and neither am I stuck in poverty.


Six percent of Brazil’s population—almost 12 million people—live in informal settlements known as favelas. Amongst this population of slum dwellers, roughly half, or 6 million people, are women. The gender disparity of the crisis is emphasised by the law professor Debora Diniz in her New York Times article: “Lost in the panic about Zika is an important fact: The epidemic mirrors the social inequality of Brazilian society. It is concentrated among young, poor, black and brown women, a vast majority of them living in the country’s least-developed regions.” Many of the urban regions affected by Zika lack basic public services, such as water supply or waste treatment. In 13 of the 27 state capital cities in Brazil, less than half the population has access to municipal with sewage collection services. On average, only 42 percent of cities have installed appropriate municipal sewage treatment services.


The most devastating impact of the Zika crisis was the impact on women’s human rights and the sheer lack of power, access to resources and information, and control they had over their bodies. In Brazil abortions are illegal; 20 percent of all pregnancies are in teenagers and half of pregnancies are unplanned. Access to family planning and reproductive information is limited. Throughout the Zika crisis, women infected with the virus were not granted abortions, and initial government response to the crisis focussed on advising women only to withhold from sex and delay pregnancy. The onus to prevent Zika or minimise risks of infecting was shouldered onto women.


As the crisis unfolded, I found myself trying to gather insights into how Zika affected women from public health, racial injustice, water security, climate change, gender inequality, abortion, urban development, and human rights perspectives. I developed a sense of urgency that the epidemic afforded us an opportunity to understand and gain insights into how potential climate change impacts in cities must be understood from a systemic and intersectional approach. How can cities ensure their most vulnerable citizens are protected from and prepared for climate change? More importantly, how can cities account for the varying impacts on climate change across diverse groups of people, identities, and individuals?


The recent and excellent report Neglected and Unprotected: The Impact of the Zika Outbreak on Women and Girls in Northeastern Brazil, published in July by the Human Rights Watch, analyses the long-term impacts of the Zika epidemic on women, with far-reaching analysis that goes beyond climate change and gender inequality. The Human Rights Watch report makes technical recommendations that address public health emergency response, access to health information, education and awareness raising, child support, people’s rights to water security and sanitation, sexual and reproductive healthcare, decriminalisation of abortion, climate change adaptation policy, and urban development amongst others. The end of Zika doesn’t begin with the eradication of a mosquito: it requires urban planning through an intersectional lense.


The term intersectionality was coined by critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw and is defined as “the interaction between gender, race and other categories of difference in individuals lives, social practices, institutional arrangements, and cultural ideologies and the outcomes of these intersections in terms of power.” Intersectionality serves as a relevant lense through which to analyse climate change impacts in cities. In disasters risk management research intersectionality helped develop understanding that although vulnerability to extreme weather events is gendered, it is “also shaped by ability, family type, cultural/racial group, and class.”


Adopting intersectional approaches can help reveal otherwise hidden information about groups of people or individuals that are useful for climate change adaptation planning and extreme weather events. Here are some practical questions developed by Matsuda that city managers should consider when working on urban adaptation planning: “When I see something that looks sexist, I ask, ‘Where is the heterosexism in this?’ When I see something that looks homophobic, I ask, ‘Where is the class interests in this?”



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With a better grasp of the realities that poor, black and brown young women face, urban planners could have better identified the need to reduce the risks of mosquito proliferation and developed long-term support structures to families affected by Zika. City managers and planners need to internalise and promote awareness of intersecting structures to identify particular needs and vulnerabilities that aren’t at first obvious and develop plans accordingly. Solutions to climate change will come through better governance, planning, and efforts to increase participation and social inclusion. It is crucial to derive lessons from the Zika epidemic that could benefit and improve urban climate change planning and adaptation in Brazil. As cities prepare to build capacity to plan for and manage climate change impacts, this process should ensure it is accountable to individuals’ and groups’ different needs, life experiences, power, access to resources and vulnerability.


5 Emerging Trends in Climate Resilience

At the beginning of May I traveled to Rotterdam to participate in Adaptation Futures, the largest conference on climate change adaptation. Not the conference junkie I tend to be a bit skeptical of large events but this conference went beyond my expectations. What stood out to me:

  • Relevant: occurs every two years, so allows practitioners to take stock of developments. It’s definitely more about content and advancing solutions than marketing.
  • Inclusive: there was a good representation of delegates from developing countries, who had received sponsorship to participate.
  • Representative: panels generally included more than one woman and the organisers made an effort to ensure race balance too.

These are important characteristics to note at such a large event – it sets a precedent for how we should be thinking and doing adaptation; through inclusion, representation, and ensuring relevancy.

The Adaptation Futures conference in Rotterdam, Holland, brought together more than 1,700 practitioners and researchers from more than 95 countries—the largest conference on climate adaptation ever. From the discussions, it’s clear that knowledge and expertise on climate adaptation is evolving. Here are five emerging trends I noted and wrote about at www.wri.org:

1) Success means affecting individual lives.

In her opening keynote, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres encouraged delegates to think of adaptation as a means for making people’s lives better: “Do not hide behind the aggregate, and risk faltering on our responsibility at the individual level. The question that we need to wake up to every morning is: Have we made the life of these people any easier and more livable?”

Adaptation efforts are only as effective as the impact they have on each person. Interventions around the world are beginning to reflect this, where previously they focused on aggregate impacts of climate change and did not consider the local, individualized analysis. For example, the city of Rio de Janeiro is testing indicators that measure and build resilience at the individual level. The ultimate aim is to identify policies and actions that can help individual persons enhance their capacities to manage climate change and become more resilient. To gain these insights, Rio de Janeiro’s resilience team will be measuring individuals’ perception of risk, their level of preparedness, and their knowledge on risk-reducing habits.

2) Cities are at the forefront.

Cities are reaching the forefront of both climate impacts and climate action. As populations grow and climate-related natural disasters strain cities, adaptation and resilience need to be integrated into urban development.

Some cities are already prioritizing adaptation. New York, London, Durban and scores of other cities have established special task forces and partnerships to tackle climate change at the highest levels of local government. Meanwhile, local councils in Australia have begun integrating climate hazards into local and state legislating to drive bottom-up adaptation. For example, in Pittwater, Australia, permission for development is “only granted once the local council is satisfied that sea level rise, coastal erosion and recession, or change of flooding patterns as a result of climate change have been considered.”

3) We need to think big.

Adaptation is transitioning from small, one-off pilot projects into large scale, sustained programs. It’s evolving from an incremental practice to a more systemic one.

For example, the city of Rotterdam applied a simple concept of “piggy-backing” to mainstream adaptation and resilience across the city’s infrastructure. The city started assessing urban development projects with a climate lens, assigning adaptation mainstreaming managers to them. Adaptation is now built-in to urban planning decisions—for example, the city created procedures for when high temperatures affect bridge performance, and developed standards for permeable pavement that can accommodate heavy rain and flooding.

4) Nature-based solutions are gaining ground.

Experts promoted nature-based solutions for adaptation to improve the resilience of cities, increase water access, protect natural ecosystems and reduce disaster risks. Natural or “green” infrastructure—such as forests and restored landscapes for water services, and trees, grasses and green roofs for heat stress and flooding—can provide cost effective and sustainable solutions that complement traditional built or “grey” infrastructure. For example, the Technical University of Munich found that trees and green walls can offset higher temperatures resulting from climate change.

5) Adaptation will transform development models.

We adapt to climate change not for the sake of it, but for some greater goal—food security, continued prosperity, livelihood security and so on. It is therefore a means to an end for more holistic, climate-compatible development. The message that we can achieve more if we are cognizant of adaptation in the context of larger development outcomes resounded with practitioners and financers at Adaptation Futures.

For example, to mainstream adaptation into national development planning processes, the government of Zambia started tracking finance in the national budget and trained Provincial Planning Units and District Planning Officers to mainstream climate resilience into development planning. This process resulted in 14 district-level roadmaps.

Moving Forward Faster

The trends highlighted above are reasons for optimism that climate action is gaining both speed and scale. At the same time, there are many opportunities to move the ball further on adaptation.

While adaptation finance has increased in recent years, it’s not reaching local levels fast enough, particularly in developing countries at the frontline of climate impacts. Within this context, a majority of the sessions highlighted the need to engage the private sector. However, the question of how to most effectively and efficiently do so is still live. Finally, many sessions underlined the importance of breaking down siloes and identifying co-benefits with mitigation for adaptation to reach its fullest potential and contribute to sustainable development goals.

Everyday subtleties: reading racism between the lines

Since moving to Brazil two years ago, I have slowly been deconstructing the image I created of Brazil as a child and teenager. Too young to read into subtleties, I was never able to see beyond the veiled nature of racism that is rife in Brazil. Out there, Brazil is known as a racial democracy, a place where the people gather to samba, eat, drink and play football. Without a doubt this country has sold the image it desired to create to the outside world: a post-racial society where racism doesn’t exist.

But if you read between the lines you will pick up on social inequalities. This article by the Globe and Mail is one of the best out there thus far in English that sums up the subtleties extremely well.