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Water management in rural South India and Sri Lanka

Patrice Cohen
S. Janakarajan

Part II. Different issues of irrigation and social water management

4. Role of Women in Water Resource Management: Emerging Issues

D. Jayalakshmi

Texte intégral

Need for gender analysis in water resource management

1The United Nations has spearheaded the global debate on the role of women in water management. One of the principles in the public declaration referred to the fact that women play a pivotal role as providers and users of water, and as guardians of the living environment and that this needed to be reflected in the institutional arrangement for water resource development and management. It was also reinforced in the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) which emphasized to need to prioritire women’s specific needs in water resource development and management in national policies and programmes. The World Bank and the World Water Council have increasingly acknowledged water rights for women from the point of view of human rights. Thus, there seems to be universal consensus on women’s participation in water management to ensure a sustainable supply of water and also on the need for acknowledging gender difference in development interventions.

Gender concerns in water management draws attention on three important aspects

2(i) How water policies (and the concerned programmes) have a differential impact on men and women.

3(ii) How differential impacts on men and women affect efficiency in water management.

4(iii) How women’s participation in water management can help sustainable development and efficient management.

Differential impacts

5The acceptance and implementation of the Dublin principle requires positive policies to address women’s specific needs. Most often the policies concerning water management have either failed to acknowledge women as stakeholders and failed to address gender specific needs, or have demarcated gender boundaries in water management. Gender focus in water management has recognized the different water needs of men and women, which has resulted in the demarcation of separate spheres for men and women, that is the domestic sphere for women and the productive sphere for men. This division in water management is the result of gender role ideologies. Women are primarily viewed in terms of their reproductive role and men in terms of their productive role, women’s water needs in the domestic sphere alone has sufficiently gained currency. Planners assume that women are responsible for family health and hence that women’s water needs are closely associated with drinking water provision. Women are seen as providers and managers of water in the household. Hence the role of women has been given prime importance in drinking water and sanitation projects. This framework has excluded women as stakeholders in the productive sector. The productive role of women has not been acknowledged. Women in developing nations contribute significantly to the family economy and livelyhoods in rural areas and are mainly dependent upon irrigated agriculture and micro enterprises that are dependent on water (homestead farming, vegetable gardens, fishing, etc.). Women are not treated as actors in the irrigation sector, as a result of which women are marginalized in irrigation management. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to recognize women’s water needs in the context of reproductive and productive roles and different rights for water in different contexts should gain visibility and legitimacy in water policy and water management programmes.

6Also women have traditionally played an important role in the community, particularly in natural resource management. Recognition of this role would strengthen their participation in water resource management.

Implication of the differential impact on efficiency in water management

7The incorporation of gender concerns in water and sanitation programmes has led to the successful implementation of a number of projects. United Nations water and sanitation projects in more than 110 countries were successful due to the effective participation of women. The success stories of UNICEF’s hand pump revolution in India, of the Indo-Dutch project in U. P. of the slum improvement project in Nagapur and watershed management projects in Gujarat and Rajasthan provide ample evidence for the importance of women’s participation in water management.

Case studies

8The Bal Rashmi Society in Rajasthan has involved women in the rehabilitation ponds in rural areas that have not been desilted for 10 years. Women had to walk 5.6 km for drinking water, cattle, etc. Women contributed 90 % of the labour in the rehabilitation work. Mahiia mandals were entrusted with the maintenance of the ponds by way of shramdhan. As a result of this, 56 villages benefited; 67 ponds deepened; storage capacity has risen 5-7 ft; more drinking water has been provided for cattle; run-off water has been stored; green belt and cooler surroundings were developed.

9The workshop convened in Mexico City, in 1998, by the IWRA, the CIDA, the IICA and the GWP on the contribution of women to the planning and management of water resources has thrown light on the role of women in water resource management. In Costa Rica, 96 % of the people have access to drinking water because of the extensive participation of women in water, sanitation and health projects. Women bureaucrats were found to be very practical and eliminated unnecessary bureaucratic procedures.

10World Bank rural supply projects clearly indicated that the participation of women increased the effectiveness of the projects in terms of better design, implementation, operation and maintenance, management transfer, etc. In El Salvador, women played a significant role in health and quality-of-life projects. In the city of Monterrey in Mexico, the water problem became a political concern and a national priority only with women’s initiatives for media campaigns against water scarcity and protests and negotiations with authorities. In Movelia (Mexico), women not only brought water to their homes, but also demanded participation in the legal decision-making process for the management of water resources. They brought cultural change in water use and conservation.

11Women in the U. S. have drawn the attention of the federal government to ground and surface water pollution and suggested a link between childhood diseases and water quality. On the other hand the exclusion of women from irrigation projects provides the most striking examples of how the neglect of women in the planning of irrigation interventions has affected the outcomes of the project.

12Indonesia: The poor functioning of the WUA was attributed to the exclusion of women, who were the real irrigators.

13Nepal: In the Baurahua irrigation system in the terai, the absence of women in pre – seasonal meetings led to inefficiencies in water distribution. The Chattis maja project faced difficulties in enforcing discipline when they used more water than entitlement, as they were not members.

14Burkinofaso: Failure to incorporate women from the beginning of the project led to their reluctance to do the maintenance.

15Peru Women played a crucial role in surveillance and conflict management. The Mahaveli project in Srilanka, The Jahally pachar project in Gambia, the rice irrigation project in North Cameroon and the Takarana irrigation project in Kenya are some of the projects from which lessons can be drawn. The Sri Ram Sagar project in India demonstrated the role of women in the removal of obstructions, in conflict resolution and in the guarding of water.

16It is imperative to address key issues relating to women’s exclusion from irrigation management. This gender segregation of space in water management constrains the definition of actors in irrigation and limits the scope for women’s participation.

17The new irrigation management policy reiterates that water is an economic good and this principle embodies the idea that goods and resources should be allocated to those who are able to pay. This principle is contested by feminists on the grounds that the ultimate goal of external agencies supporting irrigation development is poverty alleviation. These development projects aim at improving access to water for these who are resource poor and at enabling them to improve their agricultural production, income and food security. But the principle of economic good is in conflict with the poverty alleviation programme. Women constitute the greater proportion of the resource poor and their interests and their needs cannot find a place in irrigation planning under this principle.

18Second, water rights are intimately connected with land rights, and property rights figure quite prominently in gender and irrigation debates. Land rights are taken as the criterion to vest water rights in statutory law and by laws. The critical issues under this allocation principle is that the allocation of rights on the basis of assets tends to exclud those who are poor in assets. Thus women are excluded from becoming members of the WUA, although they make a significant contribution in agriculture. As the vast majority of farmers are marginal holders, women play the co-breadwinner role. A study in Satanur indicated that women participate in irrigating their fields as main irrigators or co-irrigators or substitute irrigators as paid services are not affordable. Although women do not have land titles, their participation in agriculture is on par with that of men and they are the stakeholders. Even in the upper socio-economic categories, women play supervisory or substitute roles. These women need to be seen as stakeholders in farming households

19Membership criteria stem from the unitary model of households and treat women as a homogeneous group. The upper -class ideology that women do not participate in economic activities outside the home is not correct. Another sterotype notion is that the men are the heads of the households but there are several households with women as de facto heads due to migration and the occupational shift from agriculture to industrial economy. Also households headed by women are increasing due to widowhood, desertion, etc. These women are the real stakeholders, but are excluded by the membership criterion of land titles. Canal water is used for other than irrigation purposes and hence the specific needs of women are to be taken into consideration when designing and planning irrigation systems. Women need to be included in water-users associations by promoting dual membership. Even if they become members, women do not get representation at decision-making levels. At this level, the socio-cultural perception of gender roles excludes women and psychological barriers on the part of women also prevent them from participating in irrigation management. So there should be reservation for this level.


Professor and Head, Department of Sociology, University of Madras, Chennai, India

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2003

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