Women’s participation in the governance of water remains an unsolved issue. This paper aims to give a short presentation of the correlation between women and water. It defines their role in managing this resource at the household level and beyond it. It explains the meanings of water for millions of women around the world, and specifically in developing and water scarce countries. It highlights the importance of good water governance in changing women’s life, along with the importance of their participation at all decision-making levels in the water sector.
“Equity”, one of the principles of effective and good water governance, means equal water rights for all, along with “fair” pricesand involvementof disadvantaged groups such as women and the poor. So far, equity is the most important principle that has not been implied in the water governance activity in almost all world developing countries (Al-Saidi, 2011).
For the water sector, women represent the societal sub-system actor and stakeholder mainly in the domestic and agricultural water management, playing a key role in supplying this resource for the mentioned activities. Unfortunately in many countries and communities, and especially in those which are facing the scarcity of this resource, water supply management is poorly governed being far from meeting the demand, therefore triggering problems and conflicts, such as inequity, inefficiency, competition and unsustainability.
Though women’s role in the water sector has been defined decades ago, the women’s empowerment in water governance has still a long way to go in achieving gender equality.
For millions of women from developing countries, where water is scarce not only quantitatively but also qualitatively, water has more meanings than just being the primary life resource. Water for this women represents: health, dignity, voice, safety, education, change, prosperity, equality, power, opportunity, literacy, hope, hygiene, security, a future, family, income, peace… life, in one word, for them water is transformation (Women for Water, 2012).
A starting point and reason in why involving women in taking part in governing this precious life resource is the fact that studies worldwide have concluded that women’s ecological footprint is much smaller than men’s. Women’s ecological footprint is directly linked to their more sustainable consumption patterns, by using resources with the minimum environmental impact while supporting the well-being of people. “Governments can build on female consumer preferences to promote more sustainable consumption patterns to benefit the economy and society” (OECD, 2008). Empowering women, as a more sustainableconsumer, in governing and managing their water resources becomes a must.
Women and Water
The role of women in provision, management and safeguarding of water has been recognized globally starting from 1977 with the United Nations Water Conference at Mar del Plata, the International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade (1981-90) and the Dublin’s International Conference on Water and the Environment in 1992. Followed by calls for women’s participation in the water management in Agenda 21, Johannesburg Plan of Implementation and the International Decade for Action - “Water for Life” (2005-2015) (UN, 2013).
In many countries, women are the household responsible for the water provision, for finding and fetching this good for their families. Sometimes walking miles, women are endangering themselves in order to provide water that many times is unsafe and hazardous for life. Children suffer most from a poor water quality. Every 21 seconds a child dies of a waterborne disease (Water.org, 2013). Unfortunately, water has no substitutes and remains the only source for drinking, washing, cooking and cleaning purposes.
In 2010, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDSA) published “The World’s Women 2010 Trends and Statistics”. In its report, UNDESA highlights the distribution of household responsibility of water collection, by person, gender, age, region and urban/rural areas (click report_color.pdf here for graphs and statistics to see by how much the percentage of women and girls responsible for water collection in different world regions exceeds that of men and boys of the same age) (UNDESA, 2010).
The data in Figure 1 shows by how much the percentage of women and girls responsible for water collection in different world regions exceeds that of men and boys of the same age:
Sub-Saharan region is most vulnerable to water crisis, not only because most women (63%) are in charge for providing the family with water, but also because more hours are spend for this duty. According to World Health Organization (WHO) and to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), globally, in just one day 200 million work hours are consumed by women collecting water for their families, the equivalent of building 28 Empire State Buildings each day (water.org, 2013). The lack of safe drinking water and adequate sanitation prohibits millions of women around the world from accomplishing little more than survival. This is the time that could be spent working for an income-generating job, attending school or caring for family members.
Women and the Governance of Water
Maude Barlow, the co-author of the “Blue Gold” and one of the leading experts on the politics of water, mentions in one interview for the “Everywoman - Women and the Politics of Water” TV show, that water becomes an elite privilege. “At any society level, there is someone who controls water and it is almost never the women. The less power you have in a society, whether that is indigenous or not – the less water you have, and in those divisions (race, class, gender) if you are a woman than it is even worse. Women in poor countries are suffering the most” she says. She argues the power of corporations that have control over the water and can deny access to water for those who cannot afford it, most affected being women and the poor. Even in those countries where water is still a public good, governments cannot always provide water to their citizens, because the service is too expensive or they are corrupted (Barlow, 2007).
Though it has been proved that water management activities gain efficiency when women take part in the decision-making of this process, gender inequity in water sector remains an unsolved issue all around the world. Many times women’s decision in water management is dictated by their social position and geographic location. Other times, the lack of their participatory approach is driven by individual factors, such as lack of self-confidence, low levels of education and experience outside household, etc. and institutional factors, such as religious and patriarchal norms and values that exclude women from public life, lack of family and husband support with respect to domestic responsibilities, etc. (Singh, 2006). Thus in Jordan, for example, women’s rights (e.g. to healthcare, education, water use and management) are enshrined by law through ratified conventions, but often fail to be applied in practice causing inequity problems and conflicts (IUCN, 2011).
In its latest United Nations update (September 2013) on where we stand on achieving the target of the Millennium Development Goals, it is agreed that no matter which sphere, private or public, from the highest levels of government decision-making to households, gender-based inequalities persist. Women continue to be denied equal opportunity with men to participate in decisions that affect their lives (United Nations, 2013).
Women and Water Governance in MENA region
The Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) is the most water scarce region in the world. With the constantly increasing population, increasing water demand and climate change. it is expected that by 2050 the per capita water availability will drop to less than 200 m3 in two thirds of the region (Zafar, 2013).
In most MENA countries there are policies on how to tackle povertyand water management, but rarely are water, poverty and women addressed together. And if they are, nothing is mentioned about the role of women in preserving, regenerating or managing water bodies, everything is being reduced to the household level. The representation of their differential needs and priorities in water sector programing is hindered by the limited access and participation they have in the decision-making process in different water resources management institutions. Moroccan women, for example, are generally employed, if employed, at lower professional levels than their men colleagues (Doaa Arafa, 2007). Besides Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia, other countries in MENA region lack women’s access in development units, in government ministries and organizations.
The government of Yemen relies on the old 2002 “Water Law” to implement its water conservation strategy. The laws and regulations regarding water governance in Yemen focus on the efficient use of water resources in order to protect the water quality and conserve the quantity, without touching though the issue of women participation in decision-making process. Some sources suggest that the delay in “Water Law” ratification is due to the successive attempts of gender approaches (workshops, round-tables) in the preparation process.
Jordan on the other side, has established gender units within some water related institution, such as Ministry of Water and Irrigation (MWI), Ministry of Agriculture (MOA), National Center for Agricultural Research and Technology Transfer (NCARTT), Jordan Environment Society, Royal Society for Conservation of Nature and a large number of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s). Results proved that women’s involvement has a positive impact in managing water resources, directly contributing to enhancing any water related project’s effectiveness and sustainability (Doaa Arafa, 2007).
Though, women presence is not mandatory between the chairs of the decision makers at the governance institution level, their voice as the primer user and stakeholder at the household and community level, has to be heard and consulted. For good water governance, policy makers must consult and learn from the community members of how to manage best their resources, by concluding and learning from their experience and knowledge.
“The dual aspects of the water crisis – lack of water and of sanitation – lock women in a cycle of poverty” (Water.org, 2013). This is the reason why the global water crisis is to be considered the women’s crisis. Ending the water crisis, for women would also mean Health, Education and Socioeconomic Opportunity.
Being not only the providers and managers of water resources at the household level, but also the primary users, women have only to benefit from proper water governance. Good water governance policies “must reflect women’s needs, priorities and rights in relation to all possible water-use options” (Doaa Arafa, 2007), governance that can be achieved only by empowering women in managing their resources. An integrated water resources management approach is needed in order to solve the water, women, and governance crisis.
The role of women in research, development projects, and decision-making process in the water sector can no longer be neglected, especially after being proved that women’s participation at all levels of this process brought effective, efficient and sustainable results.
The involvement of both genders, through experience and knowledge sharing is needed to achieve and ensure sustainable management of scarce water resources all over the world, contributing at the same time to gender equity and equality.
Al-Saidi, M., 2011. Water Governance. Module BGOV Curriculum. "IERM MSc Program for Arab and German Young Professionals", s.l.: s.n.
Barlow, M., 2007. Women and the Politics of Water [Interview] (23 August 2007).
Doaa Arafa, L. E.-F. H. L., 2007. Gender and WDM in the Middle East & North Africa, s.l.: s.n.
IUCN, 2011. Women and Water. [Online]
Available at: https://www.iucn.org/about/work/programmes/social_policy/?7090/Women-and-Water
[Accessed 6 December 2013].
OECD, 2008. GENDER AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT, s.l.: s.n.
Singh, N., 2006. Equitable Gender Participation in Local Water Governance: An Insight into Institutional Paradoxes, s.l.: Springer Sciency + Business Media.
UN, 2013. Gender and Water. [Online]
Available at: http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/gender.shtml
[Accessed 6 December 2013].
UNDESA, 2010. The World's Women 2010, Trends and Statistics, New York: s.n.
United Nations, 2013. The Millennium Development Goals Report 2013, New York: s.n.
water.org, 2013. www.water.org. [Online]
Available at: http://water.org/water-crisis/water-facts/children/
[Accessed 6 December 2013].
Water.org, 2013. www.water.org. [Online]
Available at: http://water.org/water-crisis/womens-crisis/
[Accessed 6 December 2013].
WHO/UNICEF, 2012. Progress on Driking water and Sanitaton: 2012 Upddate, s.l.: s.n.
Women for Water, 2012. www.womenfforwater.com. [Online]
Available at: http://www.womenforwater.com/#home, video
[Accessed 6 December 2013].
Zafar, S., 2013. www.ecomena.org. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ecomena.org/water-scarcity-in-mena/
[Accessed 7 December 2013].