Story | 03 Mar, 2023

The problem that has no name: Gender, climate migration, and the case of Israel

Dr. Hadas Cohen, Visiting Assistant Professor and Israel Institute Teaching Fellow at the Schusterman Center for Judaic and Israeli Studies, University of Oklahoma

Israel, a climate change hot spot, is preparing for global warming. The government is aware of vulnerable populations such as climate refugees and women, but treats them as orthogonal groups. To properly prepare, it must acknowledge the interconnectedness of climate change and gender, acknowledging the specific needs of female refugees.

Female climate refugees are doubly vulnerable, both to climate catastrophes back home and once on the road as refugees. Israel, which is expected to be one of the main destinations for climate refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, does not acknowledge and consequentially does not prepare for this extra vulnerable population. When a problem has no name, as is the case with the particular vulnerabilities of female climate refugees, it lacks framing, and as a result no policy is created to address it. Thus, while Israel officially addresses climate migration in policy papers, it does so in a gender neutral way, and even as it considers women to be particularly vulnerable to climate change, it does not interconnect the two. 

The Middle East is a climate change hot spot, and one of the most climate vulnerable areas in the world. With precipitation predicted to decline by 25% and temperature to rise by 4°C (7.2°F) by the end of the century (according to conservative estimates), and with sea levels expected to rise by one meter by 2050, the area is facing an inevitable climate catastrophe. 

Rising Mediterranean Sea levels will severely affect the whole region. In Egypt, saltwater infiltration of the Nile Delta will deplete fresh water sources and decimate the primary food supply of the country, uprooting an estimated five million Egyptians. Rising sea levels will also erode the already depleted fresh water sources in the Gaza Strip and flood the coastline, exacerbating Gazans’ hardships due to the Strip’s unresolved political conflicts with Israel. Heat waves and prolonged droughts in the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and other desert areas of the Middle East and Africa will force masses to relocate to survive.

Israel’s unique geopolitical position has regional and global implications. With a strong economy and a GDP per capita of 52,170$ (compared to Jordan’s 4,103$, or Egypt’s 3699$) it is expected to see an influx of climate immigrants at its borders. Therefore, despite the precarious political situation in Israel, both internally and with respect to its neighbors, the threat and effects of climate change are acknowledged and addressed (even if not enough) by the Israeli government and Israeli NGOs. Internally, the country has already begun preparing infrastructure enhancement along the coast, is strengthening its existing  water desalination projects, and is preparing “climate shelters”. Externally, the expected flow of climate refugees from Syria, Jordan, Palestine and other countries from the Middle East and Africa is perceived to be a security risk to Israel’s stability, and to the country’s ability to survive the perils of global warming.  

More importantly, while the connection between gender and climate change is addressed by the Israeli government, it is perceived to be an internal Israeli problem. The official Israeli 2021 government climate report, for instance, considered women and climate migrants as orthogonal populations, both severely affected by climate change, yet not interconnected. 

Thus, while women are especially vulnerable to the effects of global warming and even more so as refugees, in the Israeli preparation to the arrival of climate refugees, the vulnerability of female climate migrants is unrecognized. Official government reports and policy papers do not acknowledge or create policies to prepare for the specific needs of female climate migrants. For instance, the rising threat of violence towards women during climate events received a full policy report, but it refers only to female Israeli citizens. Climate refugees, on other hand, are addressed without any reference to the specific needs of female refugees. 

To properly address the inevitable influx of female climate refugees, the Israeli government must acknowledge the interconnectedness of climate change and gender, and the specific needs of female refugees. Otherwise, it will only amplify the human tragedy soon to arrive at its borders.