The Role of Women in Transboundary Water Dispute Resolution

  • Lynette de Silva
  • Jennifer C. Veilleux
  • Marian J. Neal
Part of the Water Security in a New World book series (WSEC)


Within decision-driven organisations that address water management and conflict mediation, there is much to be learnt about the role of women. At the provincial organisational levels, women’s participation in water management decision-making processes is more prevalent, while there is a gender disparity at the higher levels of the governing domain. Filling this void will bring greater perspective to water issues and challenges; bring recognition to a wider range of potential solutions; showcase women in multifaceted roles; and expand networks to better help address immediate, mid-term, and long-term concerns. The academic literature tends to categorise the role of women working in water, in terms of their contribution to community health; or their contribution to rural communities, in developing countries. Missing is the role of women as brokers of transformation within the water decision-making sphere. While many governments and nongovernment entities have emphasised women’s participation, efforts to achieve gender equality as a fundamental component emerging out of conflict towards peace and security, needs to be applied with conviction. Until a gendered approach to water management is applied as a matter of principle; and the gender gap in economics, politics, property rights, and cultural roles are closed, the valuable voice of at least half of the global population remains silent or underutilised in the process of conflict dispute when it comes to the world’s more than 300 transboundary freshwater shared resources.


Conflict mediation Water management Post-conflict reconstruction Conflict dispute Transboundary freshwater resources 

11.1 Introduction

There is a gender divide in decision-making organisations that deal with water and conflict mediation from the highest levels, down through to community organisational level. Strengthening the representation and capacity of women in transboundary water management within public administration organisations will contribute to enhanced democratic norms, respect for human rights, and contribute to improved social cohesion in general.

While women’s participation in water management decision-making processes is more prevalent at the local and community level (Earle and Bazilli 2013), the high-level positions of influence and decision-making are still dominated by men (de Moraes 2015; Earle and Bazilli 2013). Earle and Bazilli (2013) state that if water cooperation among states is regarded as an asset, then gender representation should be demonstrated and reflected in transboundary water frameworks, water management policies and governance architecture.

Women bring a unique perspective by presenting greater diversity of experience, new and different networks, more inclusive dialogues and richer collective outputs and outcomes (Yerian et al. 2014). Without this, the perspectives of the disenfranchised may not be heard, leading to unharnessed potential within communities, and in community water management schemes (ibid.). Women should participate in all aspects of the legal and political, and technical processes related to water management (Earle and Bazilli 2013).

Most academic literature examining the role of women in relation to water fall into two broad categories: papers from the health sciences or from the natural and social sciences perspective. In a recent Web of Science search on women and water, the vast majority of the more than 10,000 papers are concerned with health-related issues. The majority of the papers are concerned with water and women’s health related to water access and water quality and defined women from the perspective of a water user. When the keyword ‘decision’ is included in the search terms, the resulting number of relevant articles drops to less than 200 records. No overarching studies or reviews were found that examined the role of women as agents of change within a decision-making, transboundary water context and almost every paper that promised to do so in some way, ended up focusing on specific developing countries and women as direct water users.

In order to better understand how women can contribute to water dispute resolution in transboundary shared water resources in a more effective role, this chapter will highlight a gap in our knowledge of how women influence the decision-making domain in general and in the field of transboundary water resources in particular; understanding the role of women in the conflict cycle; the foundations needed to enhance the role of women from a security, political involvement and economic perspective; and we conclude by highlighting the importance of elevating this topic in various public fora and training initiatives.

11.2 The Role of Women and Water

We present the following sections to highlight the differences of how women are presented in relation to water resources, especially how their role is socially contracted within the academic space.

11.2.1 Vulnerable Group vs. Agents of Change

To demonstrate presence in the literature on the topic of women and water as users or decision-makers, on July 18, 2016, we conducted an assessment of records contained in the Web of Science search engine, owned by Clarivate Analytics. The time-span included is 1977–2016. Of this, there are 10,439 records of papers that include women and water as combined key words, 90% of which are journal articles (Fig. 11.1). Almost half of all the records were added after 2010. Of the top ten Web of Science categories for this keyword search, nine are health sciences related, and the other category is environmental sciences with 731 records. Water resources as a category comes in as 20th in category ranking, with some 174 records (Fig. 11.2).
Fig. 11.1

A Web of Science topic search revealed, 10,439 records for keywords: women & water. The top 10 categories include mostly health topics with the only exception being environmental sciences. (From Web of Science, owned by Clarivate Analytics, and accessed on July 18, 2016)

Fig. 11.2

The top 25 categories of this Web of Science topic search reveals water resource as holding 174 records (20th listing). So, environmental sciences and water resources constitute 851 records out of the 10,439 records that include the words women and water. (From Web of Science, owned by Clarivate Analytics, and accessed on July 18, 2016)

To further refine the search, the key word ‘decision’ was added. 178 records spanning a more diverse set of categories returned in the top 10 to include economics, planning and development, water resources, environmental sciences, environmental studies as well as health related fields. Only 2% of papers fall within a Women’s Studies category, while 12% fall within a Water Resources category (Fig. 11.3).
Fig. 11.3

A Web of Science topic search revealed, 178 records for keywords: Water AND women AND decision. Fifty-three (53) records of the top 10 categories fall within Water Resources, Environmental Sciences, Environmental Studies, Economics, and Planning and Development. When taking the top 25 records into account, only 4 fall within Women’s Studies as a category. (From Web of Science, owned by Clarivate Analytics, and accessed on July 18, 2016)

Comparing the overwhelming 10,439 records that consider women and water as a topic primarily falling within the health sciences with the 178 records returned for women and water including decision, indicates to us that women and water is a topic mostly concerned with women’s use of water and relationship with water as a matter of use rather than as a matter of decision-making (Fig. 11.3). Within the water resources category articles (22 of the records), the vast majority, more than 90%, of the papers are focused on communities in developing countries. There is a definite gap in the literature concerning women’s role as decision makers when it comes to water resources and high levels of decision making. Ray (2007) indicates that more collaborative work between “gender scholars and water policy analysts” can help bridge this gap.

11.2.2 Feminist Theory

Political ecology is one interdisciplinary theoretical construct that captures a range of concerns regarding the environment and the impacts of changing environments on people’s lives and livelihoods. This is a popular theoretical framework within which to explore the complex issues of transboundary water management and cooperation because it provides an inter-disciplinary framework for looking at impacts, and describes unequal power-relations on the basis of sex, age, class, education, and political representation.

A feminist perspective on political ecology looks explicitly at the ways in which diverse understandings of masculinity and femininity shape people’s control over natural resources such as water. Feminist political ecology (FPE) is a subfield that brings feminist theory, objectives, and practices to political ecology, an analytical framework based on the assumption that ecological issues must be understood and analysed in relation to political economy (and vice versa). Three bodies of work are particularly relevant to the consolidation of FPE: ecofeminism, feminist science studies, and feminist critiques of development. Feminist political ecologists suggest gender is a crucial variable in constituting access to, control over, and knowledge of natural resources management. Feminist political ecology asks compelling questions about who counts as an environmental actor in political ecologies and how ecological knowledge and power are constituted (Robbins 2004).

Feminism is an ideology promoting the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Feminists fight for the equality of women and argue that women should share equally in society’s opportunities and scarce resources. The burden of promoting feminism is not exclusively in the domain of women, there are many prominent men that support gender equality both in theory and practice; there is however a level of responsibility that women should shoulder to promote gender equality when they are in an enabling position. Feminist Foreign Policy

The Swedish Government is leading the way by creating an enabling environment for women to participate and engage in international politics. It has recently adopted a ‘Feminist Foreign policy’ which is built on four R’s: Reality, Rights, Representation and Resources. If we want to promote women as agents of change in the water decision-making domain and advance the conception of women beyond simply water user, then we need to embrace these four R’s and contextualise them in the transboundary water purview, for example:
  • Reality: understand water conflict situations through a gendered political economy analysis;

  • Rights: communicate the benefits of gender equality in transboundary water management – “women’s rights are human rights”;

  • Representation: include women in transboundary water management at the policy and the decision making level (i.e. gendered Track I diplomacy);

  • Resources: undertake tailored capacity building for mid-career women water professionals in key river basins in order to elevate female participation in knowledge generation and social learning.

11.3 Some Key Terms

11.3.1 What Is Transboundary Water?

Globally there are approximately 310 transboundary river basins and 600 transboundary aquifers. In this context, transboundary refers to water that is shared across an international border or denotes an international border. Increasing water scarcity and water stress due to climate change ever-rising demands for water due to a growing population create a politically challenging water management and allocation environment . Tensions over transboundary water resources are cross-cutting and often lie at the heart of national security priorities with close linkages to a wider set of economic, social and geopolitical issues. At the international level, tensions over water resources can impact negatively on regional development, trade, dampen resilience to climate change and contribute to raising the risk of geopolitical instability.

11.3.2 What Is Dispute Resolution?

The term dispute resolution refers to processes to resolve conflict and mitigate the conflict through settlement. Dispute resolution is often referred to as alternative dispute resolution or appropriate dispute resolution, abbreviated ADR; it’s an alternative to having a case tried through the court system. It includes, but is not limited to, arbitration, negotiation and mediation. This process is typically less expensive and may be less time consuming. Through a less formal court process, arbitration is heard by an arbitrator, who in binding arbitration determines the outcome. However, in nonbinding arbitration, the parities retain the right to trial. Negotiation is typically an informal mechanism to reaching an agreement that can be orchestrated directly by the parties or through third party actors. Mediation provides a less structured format than the court system, providing more flexibility than the traditional and predictable, legal approach. It allows for a mediator to help the parties. It is an atmosphere in which parties can respectfully hear all sides of an issue, to generate creative solutions, and improve relationships. The process offers confidentiality. And, since the outcome has to be agreed upon by each party, it allows the parties to maintain control of the outcome, rather than have it determined by a jury or judge.

11.3.3 How Does Conflict Differ from Dispute?

For the purposes of this chapter, a conflict is defined as one or more parties believing another party is preventing a goal from being accomplished, and that “power” is used to “overcome the perceived blockage” (Frey 1993; Delli and Wolf 2009). Disputes are milder than conflicts, and involve “nonviolent tensions among parties, including political, legal, or economic actions” (Delli and Wolf 2009).

11.3.4 The Conflict Cycle and Dispute Resolution

Oregon State University’s International Water Event Database (TFDD) catalogues water interactions at the national and international level on a linear scale, ranging from +7 (for most cooperative, voluntary unification into one nation); 0 (for non-significant acts for the inter-nation situation); to −7 (referring to the most conflictive outcome, all-out war). Table 11.1, shows that the spectrum of these disputes/conflicts can be characterised as verbal expressions, diplomatic-economic actions, political-military interactions or the declaration of war (De Stefano et al. 2010; Delli and Wolf 2009; Yoffe et al. 2003).
Table 11.1

Water Event (BAR) Intensity Scale.

Modified from Yoffe et al. (2003)

At the international water level, disputes manifest as poor political interactions and/or poor water governance among the nations, leading to inefficient water practices; and water tensions that can last decades before being resolved (Delli and Wolf 2009). Within a nation, at the sub-national water level, violence is more prevalent than at the international level; disputes may occur between geopolitical sectors, social groups and/or economic groups. At the regional or local water level, water disputes can arise over loss of freshwater, impacting human wellbeing and livelihood. This has the potential of escalating poverty, causing mass migration to cities and neighbouring countries, and potentially destabilising a region (ibid.).

Much effort in the security and international relations literature has been made to understand how and why conflict arises, develops, erupts and de-escalates. “Conflicts are dynamic and can develop and change at astonishing speed. They can also take long periods of time to gestate unnoticed before they suddenly erupt into overt violence” (Ramsbotham et al. 2011, 12). Parallel to this body of literature is the development of a typology of responses that could be undertaken in order to address conflict at various points in its development. For the purposes of this chapter, we crudely divide the conflict side of the continuum into three phases which will be explored separately in relation to the role of women; these phases are pre, during, and post conflict .

11.3.5 The Role of Women: Pre-conflicts

Creating an enabling environment for cooperation rather than conflict can be achieved by ensuring that there are appropriate governance institutions and organisations in place prior to any form of dispute.

Designing governance structures, such as river basin organisations, that articulate a shared understanding and commitment to the mandate, core functions, roles, workplans and associated resources for both political decision making bodies and technical advisors will greatly contribute to mitigating potential areas of dispute before conflicts arise while ensuring that negotiations take place in an integrative rather than competitive mode. The absence of pre-defined procedures for resolving disputes can contribute to festering conflict, especially in basins where riparians are initially adverse to sharing information or where riparians share a history of conflict.

There has been no systematic content analysis on the articulation of gender equality or gender issues or the representation of women in river basin organisations, but a quick reference to three River Basin Agreements illustrates that there might be a missed opportunity here. Referring to the composition and competencies required in the River Basin Organisations established under the Convention on Cooperation for the Protection and Sustainable use of the Danube River, Article 18 and Annex IV (Article 1); the Agreement on the Establishment of a Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission, Article 2; and The Indus Water Treaty, Article 15 – there is no consideration of gender equality in the selection of river basin representatives. Some recognition of the importance of gender equality is seen in the proposed regional governance arrangement for the Lower Jordan River. The suggested generic set of articles for a proposed future Jordan River Basin Commission states that the members of the organisation and its related bodies will have “adequate gender representation” (Yaari et al. 2015, 22).

11.3.6 The Role of Women: During Conflicts

The fields of water dispute resolution and water conflict management offer process tools for building trust, confidence, consensus and capacity (Wolf 2010). They include, but are not limited to: encouraging inclusive dialogue with stakeholders; practicing and implementing active listening (Cosens, et al. 2012); watching for cultural differences, and when appropriate working at different levels to find needs, values and uniting elements that people have in common; thinking of ‘conflict’ as an opportunity for more communication and deeper understanding. In addition, focusing on interests and needs, rather than positions; employing facilitators and mediators, and when needed thinking of ways to integrate seemingly conflictive ideas by reframing questions as, How can we address “A” and at the same time build “B”? (Wolf 2010).

Other tools include, introducing Sadoff and Grey’s (2002) analytical framework approach to cooperation and benefits on international rivers, to more fully explore mutual benefits; improving governance; creating situation maps/conflict maps to understand the interconnectivity and dynamic nature of an issue, to more readily identify gaps in communication; identifying the best alternatives to a negotiated agreement; and learning to implement the art of negotiating. These tools can be utilised by women to strengthen their bargaining skills, increase their ability of getting what they need and want, in all aspects of life, but also as it relates to their roles in transboundary freshwater dispute resolution.

11.3.7 The Role of Women: Post Conflicts

Many governments, the UN and donor agencies have emphasised women’s participation and efforts to achieve gender equality as crucial elements of post-conflict reconstruction. In 2000 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 on Women, peace and security, highlighting the interdependence of post-conflict gender equality, peacebuilding and security. Women are acknowledged as playing important roles in peacebuilding and in sustaining security.

However, according to a study on the implementation of the Resolution, “even though the participation of women in formal peace processes has been inching up, a study of 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011 revealed that only 9% of negotiators were women. Only 3% of the military in UN missions are women, and the majority of these are employed as support staff. These two areas of peace-making and peacekeeping are among the most persistently challenging for ensuring women’s equal and meaningful participation” (UN Women 2015, 14).

Peacebuilding and post-conflict building is a process of transformation: sometimes rapid, sometimes gradual and incremental. It brings opportunities—and responsibilities—to create more inclusive and less discriminatory institutions and organisations.

11.4 Laying the Foundations for More Inclusive Participation

While we have established how women are portrayed or involved in decision-making on water in the previous sections, we now explore how women are impacted and where the opportunities can be found for more inclusion. The following sections outline how dispute resolution can be shaped by several factors including how conflict impacts women’s security, how women can participate or are represented politically, and how women’s involvement in local economics can shape water resources decision-making. The current treatment of women in relation to dispute and conflict as victims prevents full involvement of their voices as decision-makers and negotiators. This outlook is ubiquitous across the globe from the highest decision-making institutions, such as the United Nations, to community leadership at the village level.

11.4.1 Women’s Security in Fragile, Conflict and Post-conflict Situations

Conflict results in the erosion of the fabric of society and creates a gendered dimension where women and girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual and domestic violence. This violence tends to increase during and after war (Sida 2015). “[U]sing rape and sexual violence in conflict more generally, as a method in warfare, should absolutely be banned and considered a war crime” (The Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture 2012). Goal 5.2 of the SDGs reinforces this view by stating that all forms of violence against women and girls in public and private spheres should be eliminated. Women continue to experience heightened levels of violence in Egypt during and since the 2011 Revolution as new documentaries and news reports have been and continue to reveal in media (Amnesty International 2015). The rule of law is unreliable in fragile states, sexual violence and war crimes are prevalent in conflict zones, and people live and survive trauma in post-conflict circumstances that impact on the realisation of sustainable development objectives.

Although an imperative, framing women’s rights as solely a question of personal security has narrowed the notion of equality. Protection is a prerequisite to security but must go hand in hand with the recognition of the role of women play as agents of change and in achieving sustainable peace. There are an array of women’s organisations and local women leaders that are involved in conflict resolution and peacebuilding activities. One example is the women’s rights organisation Association des Femmes des Médias (AFEM), a partner organisation of the Swedish Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation. AFEM organised leadership training for women in the violence-affected district of Shabunda in the Democratic Republic of Congo. One of the trainees, Josephine Kimbembe, was empowered to negotiate with the Municipal Council regarding the lack of access to water. As a result of her efforts there are now three water taps in the community which means that women no longer have to walk long distances to collect water for household use (Kvinna till Kvinna 2016). Another example is the Syrian Centre for Women’s Empowerment that organised a campaign with the Atmeh Internally Displaced People camp to combat the proliferation of small arms within the camp after a dispute over the public water tap resulted in shooting. The campaign message included ‘No wasting water or fighting over the waiting line’ and ‘No using of weapons inside the camp’ (Ghazzawi et al. 2015).

These two examples not only illustrate how women are agents for peaceful change but also that conflicts and disputes over water can occur at a very local level: around the water tap. Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) advocates that water should be managed at the lowest appropriate level (GWP 2000). Because women are often the primary users and collectors of water in rural households, it makes sense that they would often be the best source of local knowledge for water resource planning and management at the local level. This local-level concept is however incredibly complex and nuanced and cannot simply be viewed as a collection of homogenous people that think and behave in the same way. Each household and community is made up of individuals and groups who command different levels of power, wealth and influence and agency; ability to express their needs, concerns and rights and have them met. Often the local level contains competing interests in how water should be allocated and managed. When resources are scarce those with the least power are marginalised and disadvantaged, in many cases this translates to women.

Addressing the basics such as personal security and recognising women’s rights as human rights is a foundational imperative that creates an enabling environment for women to gain confidence and thrive in any decision-making domain. The inclusion of women as agents of change in a conflict and post-conflict environment reduces the burden of transformation.

11.4.2 Political Representation and Participation of Women

Women have the right to participate on equal terms in peace, security and negotiation processes. However, statistics on peace processes indicate that 93% of participants in peace negotiations and 98% of signatories to peace agreements are men (UNIFEM 2010). Women’s participation in decision-making must be strengthened in countries at peace, countries in conflict and countries in which reconstruction is under way. Throughout these dynamic processes it is essential to ensure that meaningful and inclusive participatory processes are embedded at all levels of decision making.

At the local level, depending on the culture and social norms, women’s involvement in meetings may not be culturally accepted. In many countries, strong patriarchal cultures subordinate women and girls in private life and exclude them from participation in public life. For example, in the Marsabit District in Kenya, semi-nomadic livestock herders demonstrated that women’s membership in a water management committee was not “particularly effective” (Yerian et al. 2014). However, more favorable outcomes resulted when women communicated through separate women committees, in an advisory capacity on issues related to the management of domestic water supplies (ibid.). If women in this community want to enhance their decision making capacity, it will require creative solutions by both the men and women. It may involve information regarding the benefits of joint decision making, and determining ways to equalise the decision making process, while respecting cultural values.

At the 2015 World Water Forum, the topic of “Gender Equity for a Water-Secure Future” was raised. A panel of prominent women including, Ms. Nomvula Mokonyane, Minister of Water and Sanitation, South Africa; Ms. Flavia Nabugere, State Minister of Environment, Uganda; and Ms. Margaret Wahlstrom, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Disaster Risk Reduction, among others, discussed this issue at the national and international level (World Water Forum 2015; Global Water Partnership 2015). The focus was on the role of women, and women leadership in water management. It was stipulated that a minimum quota of “40% women in water governing bodies at all levels and ensure women voices are actually heard when assigning roles and reporting.” It was recommended that paths to achieving this include funds to empower women’s education, and vocational training; and increasing outreach to raise the awareness of the needs of women and girls, as it relates to public sanitation and schools (Women for Water Partnership 2015). Also noteworthy, was the signing of a memorandum of understanding to assist with gender strategy implementation with Global Water Partnership and Women for Water Partnership (WfWP) as its signatories (World Water Forum 2015; Global Water Partnership 2015). It encourages a global approach to the “availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation of all, with the full participation of women and girls.” Areas of collaboration and cooperation between these organisations include strengthening communication, information sharing, identifying joint projects at the country and regional scale, and fundraising activities. The partnership encourages and supports joint action “for gender mainstreaming and women’s inclusion in water management processes and initiatives” (ibid.). Agreements such as this, when followed through, help forge cooperative gains, build institutional capacity and broaden the discourse (Delli and Wolf 2009).

For the inclusion of women in decision-making matters, both a top-down and bottom-up approach is needed. Miranda (2005) indicated that in developing countries, many women at the local, national, regional and international governance levels, when asked, say there is a need for greater participation of women in politics. However, Miranda (2005) and Wängnerud (2009) indicate that the outcome of whether more women in politics results in the same or a different outcome is not so easy to determine. However, if politicians, whether male or female, can bring about gender equality and equity, it lays a foundation for the inclusion of women in the decision making domain.

11.4.3 Empowering Women to Boost Economies

Women are contributing trillions of dollars to the global economy, yet many are without secure employment or high-paying positions; it is estimated that it will take “70 years to close this gender pay gap” (UN Women Annual Report 2015). To comprehensively include women, Lagarde (2014) stresses changing economic policies, laws and institutions (Mokonyane 2015); and attitudes and cultural perspectives. One effective path for women to participate in economic growth and security is through water resources management and development (GWP-TEC 2006; Earle and Bazilli 2013). Earle and Bazilli (2013) suggest that such contributions can provide significant social and economic benefits. Such measures are essential to eradicating poverty (UN 2002), and mitigating 70% of the 1.2 billion women and girls subjected to living on less than $1 per day (Canadian International Development Agency 2012). However, for any community to thrive economically, government must invest in the social fabric of society (Lagarde 2014). This is rooted in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, tapping physiological necessities, along with emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs. This principle is fundamental to the Four Stages of Water Conflict Management, in which Delli and Wolf (2009) state that water rights, claims, needs, benefits and equity goes hand in-hand with building trust, skills, consensus and capacity.

Ways in which women do not have their needs met as it relates to water management, especially in patriarchal societies includes: women being deprived through gender discrimination from gaining land titles, or accessing investment funds, or gaining equal pay for equal work. For example, actualising the right to land and water in the Nepali farm-managed systems requires labor contributions to communal pipelines (Pradhan and Meinzen-Dick 2010). Social norms prevent women from directly contributing labour, but women are overcoming these hurdles by employing men to do the labor requirements; also, donors and government regulated projects, now grant water access as a “livelihood need” (Pradhan and Meinzen-Dick 2010). Contracts and project laws, along with other overlapping jurisdictional laws can be used in negotiations to strengthen women’s land and water claims, and economics (Pradhan and Meinzen-Dick 2010). Although women are presented formally with obstacles to inclusion, they continually find informal ways around social norms or gender-biased legislation.

South Africa has the world’s most progressive national water policy and participation of women formerly written into the policy is one example of that superlative. One national water resources management initiative, aimed towards women being in all aspects of water resources management, including department services, and women-owned businesses was announced by South Africa’s Minister of Water and Sanitation, Ms. Nomvula Mokonyane, on August 31, 2015. This three-year national Women in Water Program, is intended so that “women should not only fetch water for their households, but they must also be suppliers of pipes and manage reservoirs” (Javan 2015). This effort recognises the necessity to diversify stakeholder representation, and broaden water resources management plans, thereby building institutional capacity for conflict resolution and resilience (Delli and Wolf 2009).

Another form of inclusion is through grassroots collective action. Take the case of the semiarid environment in northwest Brazil, highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (Güntner and Bronstert 2003), where approximately two million families lacked access to safe drinking water (de Moraes 2015; Araujo 2008). Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) provided safe drinking water through a rainwater-harvesting programme, “One Million Cisterns” (de Moraes 2015; Frayssinet 2010). Women fought for inclusion through grassroots collective action to build cisterns; eventually learning and teaching other women, through a train-the-trainer approach (de Moraes 2015). In this way, providing food and water security and economic growth to regional communities; while gaining respect, as active community members (de Moraes 2015).

These case studies illustrate ways in which strides can be made to enhance women’s economics, by eliminating barriers and increasing opportunities for women. Another area of improvement can be to increase women’s opportunity for employment relative to their male counterparts. If parity is achieved by 2020, this could boost gross domestic product (GDP) by 5%, 9% and greater than 30%, in US, Japan and Egypt, respectively (The Economist 2012). After all, economic empowerment can enable social mobility and marketplace advancement; proving skills, resources and institutional opportunities to assist women in making decisions that address personal and community needs (Government of Canada 2013).

11.5 Spreading the Word

11.5.1 Conferences

Conferences can be an effective tool to disseminate information, share ideas, network, socialise, and inspire. Attendance at such venues can enhance professional growth; giving a sense of community, involvement and inclusion (Smiljanić et al. 2016). Knowledge of the accessibility of water conferences for women may provide some insight into the social network structure of women in water.

Women’s conferences, characterised as formal meetings focused on women’s concerns, generally center on women’s empowerment; social justice; and/or community health issues. Such conferences, gained notice nationally and globally as early as 1848, when the Women’s Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York (National Women’s History Museum 2007). Other historical women’s forums, have included the International Conference of Socialist Women held in Stuttgart, in 1907, attended by 58 delegates from 15 countries; forums in Copenhagen in 1910; and Berne in 1915; with a less formalised convention, held in Stockholm in 1917 (Callesen 2006). Another early noteworthy mention was the All India Women’s Conference founded in 1927.

In the twenty-first century, with more women in the job market and in positions of influence, the number of women’s conferences are at an all-time high (Haughney and Kaufman 2014). While the number of women’s conferences is not known, the “space has become very crowded” (Haughney and Kaufman 2014). Crowded with conferences such as: The United State of Women Summit; Texas Conference for Women, matched by similar forums in most (US) states; the Forbes Women’s Summit – Forbes Conferences; International Women’s Day Conference; Energetic Women Conference; Invest In Women; to name a few.

Through the July 18, 2016, Web of Science search, dating back to 1977, of the limited search results for environmental sciences and water resources, 97 records are for proceedings papers from conferences. None of the results listed women and water specifically as users, actors or otherwise. Through the, an online searchable conference directory, a July 24, 2016, search for “women” related conferences held between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2016, yielded 1720 conferences on record. And, a search for “water” related conferences held during the same timeframe, yielded 2263 results. Within this directory, no conference results are listed in the category that combines “women” and “water.”

Focused on conferences whose sole aim is centered on “water” and “women,” a July 24, 2016, Google search was carried out combining the keywords, “women,” “water” and “conference.” Excluded were water conferences, such as the World Water Week, and World Water Forums that might typically dedicate several sessions to women’s issues; also excluded from the search results, were women sports conferences, and religious women’s affiliated events. The initial search captured 88,400,000 results, the top 250 results were reviewed manually, since Google rankings are associated with high-quality relevance (Brin and Page 1998). Not restricted to any conference timeframes, this search yielded a dozen entries. Among the earliest recorded results, were the African Women and Water Conference held in Nairobi, Kenya, in June 30 to July 5, 2008; Women in Water and Environment Conference, in South Africa, in August 20–21, 2012; and the National Conference on Women-led Water Management, in Haryana, India, held in November 5–6, 2012. And more recently, Africa’s Women in Water Conference, in May 27–28, 2015; the WASH and Women, Women Deliver Conference 2016, held in Copenhagen, Denmark; and Women, Water and Peace Conference, held in Istanbul, March 18–19, 2016.

There are countless empowering and inspiring women-centric conferences on the rise. However, there are very few opportunities to attend water conferences solely focused and dedicated to women’s water concerns, unless one attends a session that is part of an international or national water conference. Other opportunities, though not exclusive to just women and water, also include women’s conferences that focus on land stewardship, environmental issues, and climate change.

11.5.2 The Pipeline

To raise the number of women in the workforce, but also raise the numbers of females in leadership roles, good education is essential (Jain 2014). Inclusion through training, partnership and mentorship is invaluable. Networks like Water Women, Inc., present opportunities for meaningful mentorship for women in water. Takei (2012) expands on the notion of mentorship, and suggests that it may be equally important that women not only mentor women, but also bring about change through mentoring men. Gender synchronising strategies can help reshape, and challenge our gender norms (Ty 2014) and build more capacity for women (Greene and Levack 2010).

An increasing number of women are being trained in water management, at all levels; women are entering the workforce and gaining competence and confidence. Women are creating opportunities for themselves and each other. The November 2015 issue of the Global Water Intelligence Magazine lists the 20 top women in water and among them are Melanie Schultz Van Haegen, Dutch Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment; Gina Mccarthy, Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency; Nomvula Mokonyane, Minister of Water and Sanitation, South Africa; and Charafat Afilal, Moroccan Water Minister. Beyond agencies, this list of influential women in water, include CEOs in industry, engineering firms, and international water development and cooperate firms (GWI 2015) . These women bring remarkable expertise, and a “new wave of water management” (The Value of Water Coalition 2015), with more strategic planning and approaches geared to the next generation (Jain 2014).

11.6 Conclusion

Though women have a multiplicity of roles in transboundary freshwater dispute resolution, few have high levels of influence. Women continue to strive for readily accessible clean water and infrastructural improvements; gender equality and social justice; and support systems and decision-making involvement. These issues are complex and nuanced. However, organisations like SIDA; and United Nations, through their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) emphasise gender equality as a human right, indicating that it is pivotal to reducing poverty and bringing about social, economic and political transformation.

The authors have found that there is a definite gap in the literature concerning women’s role as decision makers when it comes to water resources and high levels of decision making. Women-focused conferences dedicated to water management can bring women in water together to continue this dialogue to determine how they can contribute to water dispute resolution, foster a more complete representation of women in water in the literature, and create opportunities for joint water projects. Additionally, more collaborative work between “gender scholars and water policy analysts” can help bridge this gap (Ray 2007). There is also a need for a systematic content analysis on the articulation of gender equality or gender issues or the representation of women in river basin organisations. Incidentally, some solutions to assist women in water may also come from the fields of water conflict management and dispute resolution, since they provide negotiation tools that can empower women.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lynette de Silva
    • 1
  • Jennifer C. Veilleux
    • 2
  • Marian J. Neal
    • 3
  1. 1.Program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation, College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric SciencesOregon State UniversityCorvallisUSA
  2. 2.Global Water Security Forum, Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA)Florida International UniversityMiamiUSA
  3. 3.Stockholm International Water InstituteStockholmSweden

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