WOMEN AND WATER
Paddling hard against the flow
Mere participation as labourers is not enough to mainstream women's concerns in water management. Instead, they
must be engaged as partners, whose roles are located in larger social and political structures.
reviews Flowing Upstream, a collection of essays drawing attention to this distinction.
25 November 2005 -
Can women managers transform the state of water governance? Can women's leadership positively impact equity in access to and supply of water? Can gender appreciation bring about sustainability in community-based water management systems? These oft-repeated questions have engaged social scientists for long.
It has long been understood that most community-based water management systems undermine the role of women; drawing upon their labour and assuming that this will in itself advance the objectives of the project and benefit women. But this is a hollow assumption; there is plenty of evidence to show that water has been managed without due regard to the concerns and priorities of women, and often they have been the first victims in the event of failure in managing water sources and supplies. The error of the assumption is amply captured in the new book, Flowing Upstream. With the help of community-based water management case studies from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Jharkhand, the editor Sara Ahmad reiterates that mere labour participation by women is not enough; instead what is needed is the mainstreaming of gender in the management of water.
The problems begin with the perception that women's incentive for water conservation is related only to their dependence on the resource - if it is not handy, then must fetch it from elsewhere. This is certainly true, but also simplistic. Male migration is common in water-stressed regions, and therefore it is inevitable that women's labour is needed to fetch water, as well as in the construction of water harvesting structures. But their participation has to be seen more broadly, within a structure that does not allow them the same access to other economic opportunities as it does to men. When we do that, we see that disregard for women's concerns in water management has a serious impact on the contribution they make to household livelihoods as well.
To drive home the point, the researchers have quantified such losses. A study in Banaskantha district of Gujarat revealed that a breakdown in water supply had caused enterprise members to lose Rs.50 per person per month in earnings. The same study had concluded that improvement in water supply had added anywhere between Rs.750 to Rs.5520, depending on the enterprise, to women's annual incomes on account of significant reduction in time spent in collecting water.
The problems begin with the perception that women's incentive for water conservation is related only to their dependence on the resource.
A flawed National Water Policy
Rural water: People first
Meandering through a diversity of cases, the authors argue that despite women's participation, even while it has grown incrementally, has not addressed their practical needs reasonably in most cases. On the positive side, they point that where women's engagement has gone beyond their mere physical presence - for instance, by taking their knowledge about water sources into account while planning conservation efforts - significant results have been achieved.
As the case studies illustrate, mainstreaming gender is as much a political process as technical that requires significant shifts in organisational culture, goals and strategies, and may involve processes of learning and 'unlearning' underlying perceptions about roles of men and women in water management. The authors argue that at a time when control over water has come to symbolize power, women's roles in water conservation and management must be located in larger social and political structures and cultural practices and in the symbolic construction of power. Hence, participation of women must ensure that it doesn't place an extra burden on women's time, nor should it reinforce gender inequalities without commensurate economic or social benefits.
Water borne diseases annually claim the lives of around 1.5 million children below the age of five and the economy loses over 200 million person-days of work, woefully little has been done to reverse the trend. With women being at the receiving end of this gross negligence in water management, it is time lessons were learned from the grassroots realities that are being consistently being presented by researchers. Flowing Upstream provides enough evidence from grassroots experiences to feed into the policy processes. The book provides refreshing insights on the engendered role of women in water management that should engage the attention of planners. The message is both loud and clear: Women need to be seen as 'partners', not mere 'beneficiaries' in water management plans.
This implies, naturally, that the archaic water boards across the country that have so far been centralized, monopolistic, overstaffed and lacking accountability, must be rethought. The Five-Year Plans as well as the National Water Policy make no amends to the 'business-as-usual' approach of water management, despite adequate evidence that this is needed. This approach suffers the myopia that accompanies all top-down planning; the inability to differentiate the specific interests of different types of stakeholders, and the consequent assumption that all concerns can be subsumed under large categories. Flowing Upstream urgers a new and corrected course, even at this late hour, to bring true empowerment to women, and just as importantly to bring real solutions to the continuing woes that plague the management of water.
Sudhirendar Sharma, formerly with the World Bank, is a water expert and Director of the Delhi-based Ecological Foundation.