Women and Water: Fitting into the Discussion

A recent lecture on water as the oil of the 21st century brought to mind several interesting points about where women fit into the discussion of water scarcity – or even if they have a place in the discussion.

Dr. Kellogg Schwab, one of the speakers on the panel, said that water is the nexus of energy, food, stability, and health. He went on to discuss the importance of looking at water scarcity from an interdisciplinary approach.  This is a great start to a discussion of water scarcity – not only is water the nexus of several different areas of life, it is also the nexus of several different disciplines.  With the acknowledgement of it being the tie between so many different areas should come the acknowledgement of water being the tie between several disciplines.  Of course, an interdisciplinary approach in this context means engineering, economics, public health, public policy and development.  Where, then, do women fit into this discussion?

In three out of the four presentations, women were cited as examples of how water scarcity can affect people – the tired statistics of how far women walk to gather so much water, or the impact of water scarcity on girls’ education.  But women were not included in the interdisciplinary approach – no women’s studies, no human rights or sociology perspective.  It is a discussion that, according to those involved, must still be dominated by science, or the mastery of men over nature.  To be truly interdisciplinary, we need to look at the gender norms and power dynamics behind how and why women use water they way they do.

A second interesting point came up when discussing agriculture’s use of water.  Agriculture uses 70 percent of the water supply, while household uses only use about 10 percent.  Yet women, who are often portrayed as the most affected by water scarcity (and as the reasons for working on water scarcity), are generally in charge of the domestic uses of water.  So if women are in charge of domestic uses of water and not agricultural ones, and agriculture is the biggest user of water, then why are women used to pitch the need for action on water issues?  Should the focus be on reducing the amount of water that agriculture uses?  (I recognize that there have been huge advancements on this point, however, the point is that it is not as widely known nor as widely used as a reason for acting on water scarcity).

Often, advocates for water issues discuss the need for a holistic view of water.  To be truly holistic, we need to be exploring all sides of water scarcity – including the gender implications or the gendered uses of water.  The division of labor among people, and the reasons that certain people do certain tasks, has huge implications for water use and scarcity.  The security issues involved in women’s access to clean water and sanitation are also intertwined with the gender norms of society.  To really address the issue of water scarcity, those issues have to be discussed as well.

Finally, the use of women as the reason for action strikes me as wrong as well.  It brings to mind Laura Bush’s advocacy for women in the Middle East just in time to help justify former President Bush’s push for war in the area.  Using women as justification for a larger goal is playing on sympathies of Western women for women in developing countries – ‘oh those poor women!  We must help them!’  Absolutely their situation is unfair and awful (I wouldn’t want to walks miles carrying a jug of water), but to look at it just on the surface misses some of the point.  Why is it just women carrying the water, and what role do men play in water scarcity?

This attitude also walks a fine line between sympathy and blame.  One of the presentations discussed maternal and child health initiatives that focused on increasing the practice of handwashing.  This is the perfect example – it is very easy to slip into thinking ‘how do these women not know to wash hands after going to the bathroom?’  I commend Koki Agarwal for not discussing it that way, but rather focusing on how they were targeting the message and how helpful it was in reducing child mortality.  But this is a side effect, if you will, of using women to pitch water scarcity.

I want to see a discussion that is truly interdisciplinary.  The other disciplines of economics, policy, and engineering are all important, but there needs to be a social context given to this discussion that allows women to not just be the subject of the problem.  We need a truly holistic dialogue here.


(Photo Credit: GRIID.org)

Women and Water: Can You Own Water?

I have been recently working on a paper discussing the ownership of water, assuming for my argument that you can somehow lay claim to water.  Now that the paper is finished, I am free to ponder whether or not you can actually lay claim to water.

Water is not something static.  It is constantly moving, flowing, and changing.  It doesn’t stay in the same place at any time, regardless of whether you remove it from the river/stream/ocean or not.  It evaporates back into the sky and returns to the water cycle.

So how can someone lay a claim to water?

One way that people have done this is to create riparian rights – the rights to the land surrounding water.  Thus I can own land around a lake and have a claim on the water in the lake, but I still cannot own water.

Ownership implies some kind of control over the object that is owned – if I own something I can control access to it, or how it is maintained.  But is control over water really the goal? Controlling water does not guarantee the state in which water will be kept – it does not stop the water from becoming polluted.  Furthermore, control implies some kind of dominance over the object. What is forgotten, however, is that water cannot be controlled.  Tsunamis, hurricanes, and floods are all evidence as to how much more powerful water is than humans.  When people have attempted to constrain water, time and time again it has overpowered the constraints.

Frank Trelease uses the thought experiment that if you buy a watch, you have ownership of the watch. And if you have ownership of the watch, you can protect the watch and demand damages if it is broken.  To him, if I own water, then I can seek any damages for the pollution of that water.  And in order to own water, I must buy it.  Whether that buying is in the riparian sense, where one buys the land surrounding water and is given claim to the water, or in the infrastructure sense, where one buys the water that is pumped to one’s house, is hard to determine.  However, his conception of ownership implies that if one owns something, one can defend it. But what if the resource could defend itself?

Christopher Stone, in his essay ‘Should the Trees have Standing?’ discusses whether or not natural objects like trees and rivers should be allowed to have legal standing.  In the process, he says that if we are to view rivers as to be something that can be wronged, then we must also hold the rivers accountable for their impact on the earth: namely the impact of floods.  The river should be made to pay damages for its destruction (through the use of a legal guardian and a fund created in the name of the river).  Through this understand, rivers and streams would not be owned, couldn’t be owned, as ownership would deny them their rights as objects of legal standing.  Rather water would be borrowed from the river/stream and would have to be returned in good condition.

Furthermore, if water can be owned, than water can be sold.  J.H. Dales discusses the importance of acknowledging water ownership so that it can be priced effectively for the market.  His argument is that if water can be owned, than it can be treated as a material good with a fixed pricing system, rather than affixing an arbitrary price to water, as had been done previously.

But to return to the original question, how can someone lay claim to water, the answer is much more complicated than if ownership is justified.  If water can be owned, can it be bought? Or is the ownership in name only, meaning that I can own the water I pull from a stream? I think the answer is a bit of both.  When I pull water from a stream to use it, I own that water.  John Locke writes that ownership of a resource only requires the mixing of one’s labor with the resource – by Lockean understanding, I own whatever water I remove from the water cycle.



(Photo Credit 1: Water Ownership) (Image Credit 2: Public Services International)

Women and Water: World Toilet Day

Friday, November 19th was World Toilet Day.  While this may not have the ring to it that World Water Day or World AIDS Day has, like those days it brings attention to a pressing problem: the lack of adequate sanitation through much of the world.

Approximately 2.6 billion people in the world do not have access to basic sanitation.  The problem of lack of santitation compounds the problem of clean water access – without sanitation measures, people defecate in the open which eventually will wash into streams and rivers.  Drinking that water without treating it first can be extremely hazardous to one’s health, creating problems like widespread, chronic diarrhea and other water bourne illnesses.  Lack of sanitation has caused more deaths than all the wars of the 20th century combined.

World Toilet Day is a day of awareness to bring attention to this issue.  While the problem may seem to be solvable by just placing toilets in strategic areas, dirty toilets are just as much a part of the problem as no toilets.  The problem with lack of sanitation is a health problem, first and foremost, and dirty toilets can cause just as much risk to health as no toilets.

Lack of sanitation also complicates the issues of women’s security.  ‘Taking care of business’ in the open can leave a woman vulnerable to attack.  Additionally, she must do so in the early morning or late at night in order to protect her privacy because being seen going to the bathroom is associated with shame in many cultures.  Again this leaves her vulnerable to sexual assault.

Without adequate sanitation methods, young girls leave their education earlier because there is nowhere for them to urinate at school in private: the only option is to do so in front of peers, again making the girls vulnerable to sexual and physical assault.  Added to this is the problem of managing menstruation without adequate sanitation.  Without clean sanitation facilities, girls drop out during puberty.

In the Western world, we do not think about what impact not having toilets would be.  It is another bit of basic survival that is provided for us – we become disconnected to how important sanitation is because we don’t have to worry about finding a safe place to relieve ourselves.

If you are like me, you probably missed that last Friday was even a day of awareness.  It does not get the attention it deserves because in the Western world, we do not talk of such things.  They are taboo.  It seems like sanitation is only allowed to come up in the toilet humor of popular comedies, which are aimed at the male population.  Because women are especially not allowed to talk about such issues; it is ‘unseemingly’ or ‘unladylike.’ Feminist blogger RMJ tackles some of this in her blog ‘Deeply Problematic.’ Sanitation is another thing that women are supposed to keep private.  But keeping quiet can cause more problems than speaking up about the lack of sanitation in the world.

Women need to start speaking up about this.  The problem of sanitation does not go away just because we missed the awareness day – it is a continual problem that is not getting the attention it deserves.  Africa World Water Week is this week (Nov 22-26).  The goal of this week is to bring attention to water and sanitation issues in Africa, and the Millennium Development Goal to half the number of people without access to clean water and sanitation.  This goal is still far from being met, but getting people to talk about this issue is a big step forward.  So this week, when listing what you are thankful for, be thankful that you have access to adequate sanitation and get that conversation started.

(Photo Credit: World Toilet Organization)

How the Oil Spill Affects our Perception of Women and Water

Over a month ago BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 people and beginning a month long flow of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  Responses to the disaster were slow at best, with BP’s solutions never succeeding in capping the flow of oil into the ocean.  The result is that people all along the coast of the Gulf who are dependent on the Gulf for food or livelihood are losing out, and the wildlife population that exists in the Gulf is hurt by the crude oil.

For myself, and for many other I’m sure, the outrage at this spill comes primarily from the inability to act and the inability to connect this oil spill with the dangers of both depending on oil reserves and dumping things into the ocean.  The apathetic attitude of people toward the dumping of gallons of crude oil into the ocean is the most alarming part of the disaster.  In my last post, I talked about some of the connections between women and water.  This oil spill displays more of those characteristics.

Before discussing the implication of the oil spill on gender, I should first discuss a little bit about the feminizing of the ocean itself.  The ocean or the sea is referred to as a ‘she,’ like when the sea is referred to as a mistress to sailors, or when religions include a goddess of the sea.

This connection is not so far out of the blue.  The characteristics attached to the sea are often ones similar to those attached to women.  The sea in many religions is considered to be a birthplace of life – similar to viewing women as life-givers.  The ocean is often perceived as having a calming effect – similar to the idea of a mother’s comfort.  And finally, the ocean is said to have a fury and a power that is hidden and to be feared – ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,’ or a fear of women’s power.

Secondly, there is a belief that the ocean has a religious power of sorts to wash away all sins  — the sea can contain or take all that we do to it.  A group of people in Denmark decided to thank the ocean by sinking a huge metal statue filled with bread in the ocean as a sacrifice.  In order to thank the ocean, they had to literally dump more problems into it.  This is similar to how we talk about women, especially women in developing countries or those who have just been through a trauma of sorts – we comment on how strong they are, and how wonderful that they can take so much.

Water is a resource that is essential for all forms of life, yet we privatize it and sell it for immense profits.  The documentary FLOW discusses not only the effects of privatization on water but the similarities between the so-called ‘water industry’ and the oil industry – mainly that both are driving prices up at the expense of people who can’t afford it and the profit of those who don’t need the money.

So what does this mean for the oil spill in the Gulf? The spill happened in the ocean – a ‘feminine’ body of nature.  As such, it can take all that we do to it – like the ideal strong woman who can ‘take’ all that life throws at her.  The ocean can take the gallons of crude oil that are rushing into the waters destroying marine life and coming closer and closer to shore (in fact, it has already hit some islands off the coast of Alabama).  I believe that the driving force behind the fact that BP executives are so slow to act is that they believe that the ocean can take this abuse.  BP CEO Tony Hayward was quoted as saying “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”

The sea is tied to feminine ideas, or the feminine principle as Vandana Shiva puts it.  When something is so closely tied to femininity, it is not immune from the reach of patriarchy, in particular the idea of control over the ocean’s resources (which include the crude oil beneath the ocean’s surface).  Not only can the ocean take all that we do to it, but it also is there to be controlled and manipulated by us as humans.  Moreover, the people running BP are predominantly men, making it a situation where men are controlling/manipulating the feminine for their own profit and use.

The BP oil spill in the Gulf is a disaster in so many ways, but it does give us a clear picture of the value that we place on our oceans, and by extension on women.  Perhaps the reason why there is less outrage from the general population about the oil spill is that we don’t place enough value on it – it is expendable in the name of profit, much like the patriarchal view of women.

(Image Credit: Flow)

Women and Water: Natural, Human, and Women’s Rights

This month I want to vary a little from my initial theme and talk more broadly about the right to water and the right of water, without highlighting any specific organization.  While the right to water and the right of water may seem to be the same thing to many people, the two are extremely different.  I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference on the right to water, where the intersections of these three issues were discussed.

The right to water is the idea that people have a right to water resources, and to use them to their best advantage.  When people talk about how women in the developing world should have access to clean water, this is a right to water.  The same can be said for restoring the rights of indigenous peoples to the water resources once taken from them by colonialists – they are fighting for their right to water, and their right to use water. (This can also be considered a water right, which deals with water from a legal, property standpoint).  It is generally agreed that all human beings should have a right to water.  Where there is disagreement is in how to enforce that right and how to ensure that all people have access to that right.

The right of water looks at the issues from a deep ecology or spiritual ecofeminism type of perspective; meaning that it looks at water as the right-holder.  As a natural resource, and perhaps the one most necessary for sustaining the life of human beings, water has a right to be preserved and protected.  Since water cannot physically represent itself, people must protect the rights of water.

Women fall into this junction of human rights and water at many different sections.  First, and perhaps the most obvious, women have been tied to water through religions for centuries.  Traditionally, water has been personified as a woman — the sea is feminized.  ‘She’ becomes a source of tremendous natural (I use natural here to mean from the world of nature) power that men must conquer and control.  Once water is feminized, the similarities between water and the oppression of women become more apparent.  While women are oppressed and restricted, water is conquered, forced to change its course, and privatized.

Second, women are the primary gatherers of water in the developing world.  In some places, women must walk miles to the nearest water source, sometimes more than once a day, in order to bring back enough water for their families and their domestic duties.  These walks are long, not necessarily safe routes, putting the women and children who walk them in danger.  A better global stewardship of water resources would make these challenges less dangerous and time consuming.  Attention to water conservation and climate change issues would make water scarcity less of a problem.

The UN’s report on the health of water stated that half of the world’s hospital beds are filled by people sick or dying due to water-related illness that could be completely preventable with access to clean, safe water.  These are not new statistics.  For years now, it has been evident that water resources are becoming scarcer, and the water that is left is more polluted than before, and that developing countries are bearing the brunt of that (with notable exceptions around the developed world).

Is this exemption from international relief due to the feminization of water resources? I think that is a large part of it.  Water quality and quantity is an issue that directly affects human life.  We cannot exist without water.  Water has been defined as a human right – the South African government admits that water is a natural right that all people should have access to.   Granted, South Africa is not the best example when it comes to implementation of equitable water practices, but the government has taken the step to declare water a natural right. Yet access to water, the right to water, is still debated, couched in legalese, allowing nations to disregard it and manipulate that right how they see fit at the moment in time.

The right to water has been marginalized much as women have been.  ‘She’ (the sea, the river, the stream) is restricted and not consulted in the decisions regarding her fate.  Thanks to feminism, women have been able to regain control of many of the decisions about their lives, in certain areas of the world.  However, the decisions concerning water resources are still left to the minds of men rather than consulting the women who are both the primary water managers and are likened to water in traditions.  Here is where the linkage needs to take the next step.

Yes, access to water is a human right. Yes, women are the primary interactors with water in many developed countries.  And yes, water is often coded as female.  Since all of these are true, than the access to water is a women’s right as well as a natural right and a human right.


(Photo Credit: UN Water)

Women and Water: The Women for Water Partnership

The ties between women and water are numerous.  While only some are recognized by mainstream culture or activism, the ways in which women are tied to water are often used as ways to promote the adoption of sustainable water practices.  As gathering, storing, and using water takes up the majority of the day for many women throughout the developing world, they have been put at the forefront of community-driven campaigns for clean water.

While some place women at the forefront of this campaign because water is seen as a domestic issue and therefore a women’s issue, there is much more to the connection between women and water than that.  In some places, women (and children) can spend up to 8 hours a day walking many miles to a clean water source.  Often, this water source is so far away because of effects of climate change, environmental degradation, or the privatization of water.  This can go unnoticed by local authorities because it is seen as a part of the everyday tasks of women.  The impacts and implications of actions taken by governments and by large corporations go unnoticed by those not directly affected by it. Women take notice.

The Women for Water Partnership takes notice.  Based in The Netherlands, the partnership works with women’s organization all over the world – Africa, Europe, South America, Central America and the Caribbean, Asia, and the Middle East.  They work to bridge the gaps between the foreign policy solutions to water management and the on-the-ground women who are expected to carry out those solutions in their day-to-day lives.  Through this work, the Women for Water Partnership also works to empower women to take leadership roles in their communities, especially in regards to water issues in the community. The Partnership works with communities not only to ensure safe drinking water for families but also to educate people about the importance of water conservation.

What is important to note about this organization is that it works as a network of women and water organizations.  The groups doing the work are local organizations working with local people rather than a UN based task force sent in to educate the native peoples about their own water situations without understanding the culture, community structure, or region-specific issues related to water.  The scarcity of water in Uzbekistan is not the same issue as the securing of clean water in India – each region has different issues to face and solutions to create that are dependent on the culture and people of each region.

Charles Kennel discusses the importance of looking at each nation’s issues individually, in a region by region basis, and James Speth and Peter Haas in their book Global Environmental Governance build on that by likening environmental policies (in this case, women and water activism) to jazz. There can be no one model that can be reproduced over and over again, but rather there must be room to improvise and experiment with the methods to find what works best for that nation.

This is what is important when it comes to looking at organizations that work with putting women in charge of water solutions – one method does not work in every instance, in every country.  There must be room for experimentation and discussion among the numerous organizations working in this area.  A network of organizations that can discuss what has worked well and what was not helpful to people in that area is beneficial to finding the best ways to work with women and water – and that network should be made up of people who are a part of the community, not outsiders coming in to help or to preach the best way of doing something.

While a network of communities that reaches around the globe may work towards the good, it can only do so if that network has roots in the communities themselves.  Women have long been oppressed by others, and women of the developing world who are working to create and develop sustainable communities do not need to be oppressed by a colonialist ideology, regardless of its intentions. The parallels between the misuse of water resources and the oppression of women in communities are many, and tie women to water in ways beyond the fact that both are necessary for giving life, or the idea that there is an inherent quality of care-giving and nurturing present in both women and water.  Women are tied to water because both have been exploited and oppressed. Networks such as the Women for Water Partnership are helping to give voice to both women’s empowerment and the scarcity of water resources.


(Image Credit: Women for Water Partnership)