(Re)Producing Gender: The New Water Cycle

In honor of World Water Day my colleague at Women In and Beyond the Global, Lisa Seyfried, began writing on the intimate connections between gender and water – particularly that water is provided as a part of the domestic labors of women.

At the same time, a cry for help rang out across the provinces of southern China. They are experiencing what could be the worst drought in a century. Reservoirs and rivers desperately needed to sustain life are drying up. It is getting to the point where even the ground is beginning to crack of thirst. It is impossible to know for certain how many people have been affected. In just one province, according to government officials, there are 19 million people with a severe shortage of drinking water. For some comparison, according to the most recent government estimate, that is about two million people more than the total number of residents in Beijing. And that is just one province. Another three provinces are said to be in similar straits.

With no water immediately available, many villagers are forced to wander for miles in order to bring back as much water as they can carry. Many of these are women or girls.

The problem goes beyond not having enough water to drink. There is also not enough water to sustain either the livestock or the crops. Under the hukuo system (the system of house-hold registration that determines access to social services), it is expected that many rural villagers will engage in subsistence farming rather than employment. Much of the families’ yearly income comes from selling their excess produce at a price that is fixed below market value by the government.

Who then, decides the allocation of the water that is made available? Not the women in charge of retrieving it. Further, as water becomes increasingly privatized, the men in the villages do not get much say either.

These regions most affected by drought are also expected to provide many of the flowers for the country as well as other nations. In fact, this same region is the single largest wholesale center for flowers in all of China. It is this same market for gendered tokens  which decides that available water will go to producing saleable commodities rather than to sustaining human populations.

Many of the rural villagers are being forced to migrate toward more industrial centers as the land becomes increasingly untenable for subsistence. There is a limited supply of gendered destinations. The men are left to go to the urban centers, where they will erect   the glass and steel facades of Chinese modernity. Or they can enter the mines – which continue to pollute more sources of water through environmentally destructive practices such as strip mining or mountaintop removal.

The women, however, bear the increased burdens of this migration. Since they are most often left behind in the village, the duty of care labor falls upon them, without any support that their partner may have otherwise provided or received. Depending on age and familial position, they may be expected to migrate in order support themselves as well as their families.

If a woman has a younger brother (the one child policy has a stipulation that a second child may be afforded if the first born is female), the cultural conditions dictate that she may have to work extra to support his educational endeavors.

If she is young enough and/or attractive enough (by the standards of the employer of course), she may be expected to go to work in the industrial centers either in retail or in the factories. Or she may find herself in the more informal economies if she proves to be unsuitable for the other types of labor. As she works to (re)produce herself as well as her family, she will be simultaneously responsible for facilitating the standard of living that many in the US have become accustomed to having.  She serves two household masters, and both are distant and intimately felt.

Beyond that, her labors will further contribute to the ecological damage that leads to the drought. Two of China’s largest exports, clothing and electronics, require some of the most intensive investments of water – water which is then so polluted by production that it cannot be safely used for human consumption. In this way, the migrant woman worker becomes a part of the force that created the impetus for her migration in the first place.

This is the new water cycle, spiraling out from the original state of the waters’ potential. A new industry moves into the region. Women are predominantly employed since their labor is more cost effective. The industry purchases rights over the usage of the water. Water becomes scarce. More women move to the factory for much needed work, potentially working for less than the previous cohort as they are more desperate for money. If the industry is to survive, it must draw from a wider pool of resources, bringing more devalued labor with it. Finally the industry moves elsewhere to a fresher supply of resources, leaving in their wake the hollowed out shell of how the people used to survive.

A system built on unlimited growth through the exploitation of limited resources cannot be sustained indefinitely. An obvious point yet one that has yet to be fully accepted as truth. While we demand that our standard of living be subsidized through the exploitation of cheap labor and even cheaper labor standards, the economic machines march on towards our collective destruction. This destruction cannot be averted through a green-washing of the problem. We need to fundamentally alter our relationship to water and by extension, the ways that we relate to feminized labor.