Why we need women’s voices in water management

Kashmiri women collect water from a water tanker in Shilvath, Indian Kashmir, January 2017. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/Farooq Khan)

In countries across the world, women and girls are more often responsible for managing water supplies in their households and wider local communities. But when it comes to holding positions in water management and water diplomacy, women are drastically underrepresented.

As part of our series 'The Water We Share', Geneva Solutions spoke to two experts about how water issues affect women differently and why it's vital women's voices are heard. Natasha Carmi is a lead water specialist at the Geneva Water Hub and Ayushi Trivedi is an expert on gender equity at the World Resources Institute.

Geneva Solutions: How do water-related issues affect women differently?

Ayushi Trivedi: In many countries all around the world, especially in the global south, when it comes to the domestic use of water it is usually women and girls that are responsible. They are in charge of finding a source of water for household use, travelling to collect it, carrying the burden, boiling it if it is for drinking purposes, and then using it for all sorts of household chores from cleaning to washing and cooking. So from this perspective, women obviously share a very close relationship with water, and in times of scarcity women are very directly affected because it falls on them to find a different source of water or to walk further or travel to more isolated places to fetch this water. Of course, as a woman you are then also exposed to exploitation if you're walking alone through areas that are unsafe, so all of these different burdens come together when it comes to water scarcity.

This is not only common in rural areas, it's also in urban areas. In big cities, whenever there's water scarcity, it falls on women to wait in lines at communal taps or water tankers. That has an opportunity cost – it's usually women who don't go to work or girls who don't go to school to be able to fetch water. So all of this gender division of labour dictated by social norms puts a very heavy burden on women when it comes to water scarcity and water insecurity.

GS: So is it fair to say that women bear the brunt of water scarcity?

AT: Yes, I think so. For example, women are especially vulnerable in conflict settings where water infrastructure can be damaged and women are in charge of finding different ways to bring water home every day. There have been some cases where women have exchanged sexual favours for water in conflict-ridden areas.

Natasha Carmi: There's a lot of research and evidence about how a lack of access to water has a different impact on men and women, especially in rural and marginalised areas. But on another level, when you have peace agreements or any kind of agreements among communities, regions or countries, if there's an absence of articles [in the agreement] that refer to water allocations it’s going to have reverberations on women in a way that is different on men. This entails having more responsibilities at the household level, but it also entails the regional and national levels. For example, when we're talking about transboundary water cooperation, these issues are usually borne mostly by vulnerable groups, including women and girls.

GS: Why is it important to have women in decision-making positions when it comes to water management?

AT: I think it directly relates to how closely they share this relationship with the use of water. At a local level, there are many case studies out there where the decision making is usually done at the village or town level, where the leaders are usually male and the decisions are made based on infrastructure and engineering and not so much about who might use the water and how it is being used. And so there might be cases where, if you build a well and the infrastructure is not proper for all sorts of groups to use it, then it will leave out different marginalised groups including women from benefitting from it.

There is enough evidence out there that shows when women are a part of these decision-making bodies there are better outcomes, such as better long term use or payment of fees. And that might have a lot to do with their social networks and their sense of community building, and how they manage things overall.

GS: Is the field of water traditionally male-dominated?

NC: When it comes to the higher level of water diplomacy there aren’t a lot of statistics specifically, but it’s really at the crossroads between two disciplines and two policy fields that have traditionally been male-dominated: water resources, and diplomacy and international relations. These have both historically been defined as more male spaces, so that is why today we don’t really have a significant proportion of women in high-level positions in water diplomacy.

Women are always in the sector, but they usually hold positions in middle management at best. They might be technical advisors, they could be heads of departments, they may be involved in administrative aspects of water resource management. But in the decision-making positions as heads of directorates, heads of utilities, or ministers, they are always in the back seat.

AT: Water engineering and infrastructure are also always very male-dominated. That partly goes back to how women are not as engaged in STEM fields and what barriers they face there. So they're not as much a part of these conversations and discussions.

The World Bank released a report on women and water utilities in 2019 which showed that in various countries, women are not a part of organisations and decision-making bodies that focus on water access. So this is definitely an issue that again goes back to the point that if more women are involved in decision making, not just at a local level but also at an institutional level, we might see better outcomes.

GS: What are the barriers here?

AT: In my opinion, all of it stems from the social norms that are built in, so stemming from how women may be discouraged from even taking up water engineering as a career to things like workplace bias on who was promoted and what kind of work they are given and if they are given the opportunity to represent the sector at an international level. A lot of these gender-based factors ultimately contribute to these missing women in the room.

GS: According to the UN, only 26 per cent of countries are working on gender-mainstreaming water management. What progress is being made to get more women into this space?

NC: There are currently several initiatives globally that are investing and focusing on the empowerment of women in water diplomacy, for example, in the Nile Basin and the MENA region. So I think this is something to look forward to. It will be interesting to see at the upcoming World Water Forum in Dakar in March 2022 at what level women will be participating.

These decision-making bodies that work on water issues need to be inclusive and participatory. They are not just infrastructural issues, they are social issues, and so using an intersectional lens to have women from all sorts of different backgrounds and social characteristics and other marginalised groups in the room is needed, and not to have them as just tokens. This is vital.


This article was realised with the support of the city of Geneva as part of its media support program.