Explorations on gender in the world of water

11 February 2021

To promote full and equal access to participation in science for women and girls, the United Nations has declared 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. 

Article written by: Heather Montague.

Women and girls make up around half of the world’s total population, yet they represent just one third of the people working and studying in (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) STEM fields. This gap, which is driven by gender biases, stereotypes and expectations around what is considered women’s work, persists around the world. So, bridging the gap is a vital step towards gender equality.

In observance of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we take a look at some people and projects that explore gender issues in the water domain, demonstrating both the contributions of women in science and engineering as well as highlighting the need for change.

Transformations to Groundwater Sustainability

Through her research on water allocation policies and practices, IHE Delft Professor of Water Governance Margreet Zwarteveen explores questions of equity and justice, with a specific focus on gender issues. She leads an international project called Transformations to Groundwater Sustainability (T2GS), which studies grassroots initiatives where people organise around groundwater in places where there is severe pressure on the resource. “The hypothesis is that these local initiatives are very inspiring for thinking about and learning how to deal with and interact with and use groundwater in more sustainable and just ways,” she said. And there is a clear feminist spirit to the project, she noted, with women having significant roles at both the scientific level as well as the grassroots level

Two such women are hydrogeologists Uma Aslekar and Rucha Deshmukh. They work for T2GS project partner ACWADAM, an NGO that is part of the case study team in Randullabad, India. “We really believe in groundwater management,” said senior scientist Aslekar. “Our model is essentially about developing partnerships and bringing communities closer to the aquifers.” They do this through participatory groundwater management, which is increasingly being recognised for its ability to address the challenges of equity, efficiency and sustainability.

The ACWADAM-led portion of the T2SG project involves the study of two villages near the city of Pune. Though they are just 60 km from each other and the geology is the same, Aslekar explained they are poles apart in terms of groundwater management. At one location people have come together independently and decided to manage their own groundwater by establishing a set of rules. “In the last 20 years they have done a fantastic job,” said Aslekar. “What we call groundwater sustainability, they have really achieved in that village.” 

But in the other village, there are a lot of political, economic and social factors at play. There is surface water from canals, at least 500 dug wells, 2000 bore wells and the annual rainfall is only 350 mm. And because of water supply from the canal which is an external source of water for the village, people are migrating to crops like sugarcane which is water intensive. These types of practices have led to exploitation of groundwater and recovering from this is a challenge. By studying and comparing these two communities, the team aims to understand what factors govern groundwater sustainability.

Though the work is rewarding, Deshmukh said there can be challenges for women working in a male-dominated field like hydrogeology in India. She described an experience during some field work while trying to communicate with a local community about measures to secure their groundwater. Her words did not make an impact, but when a male colleague stood up and reiterated the same things it was accepted by the respected members of the community. “So as a woman who communicates scientific things you are mostly side-lined, but when a male reiterates the same thing then it is taken seriously,” she said. “I think in participatory groundwater management, who is communicating matters in a patriarchal society.”

But being a woman also creates some advantages. “When I talk to women, maybe because I am a woman, they open up their minds and say things they might not have said otherwise,” said Aslekar. “I have this liberty to go into their kitchens, to sit and talk to them and these conversations actually help us in understanding different aspects.” She also said they aim to help women be more active in the process, but there is a need to motivate them and to enhance their capacities. “In all other fields, especially with respect to agriculture, women are on par with men. Financially they have started making decisions, they are leading the villages. But we are really working hard towards having women get involved in the scientific things that are needed at the grass root level.”

From Nepal to the Netherlands, engineering is a masculine institution

The discussion on gender in relation to development, and specifically water, has been going on for decades. According to Dr. Janwillem Liebrand, the focus was originally on women and the fact that they have been excluded from water projects, water management bodies, water user associations and even from being formal land or water-rights holders. So, much of the attention in the development world has been about how to design projects that benefit women at the field level. “But in that whole discussion there was basically no attention for the fact that at the professional level there are also gender dynamics, even at the conceptual level at the level of knowledge or science,” said Liebrand.

This concept was a driver for Liebrand’s PhD thesis, entitled ‘Masculinities among irrigation engineers and water professionals in Nepal’. In it, he explored what engineers do, what type of conceptual frameworks they use and how the professional engineering community is gendered. Liebrand, now an assistant professor at Utrecht University, said his work in Nepal uncovered another layer of the debate on gender. “The perception was that women’s oppression is a development issue. In the west we think that we have quite liberal, progressive, advanced and modern societies so for the whole development agenda we basically discuss gender as a problem in Africa or South Asia or Latin America,” he explained. “But we rarely connect it back to our own gendered world, so I struggled with that.” So, going to Nepal to research the masculine irrigation bureaucracies of South Asia was a very self-reflective experience for Liebrand. “I was not talking about myself or the fact that I came from Wageningen which is also a very masculine institution, engineering in general is a masculine institution

He also noted that systems of patriarchy are marked by a cultural dynamic in which what is considered masculine is viewed as better than what is considered feminine. It’s a system of values that is very difficult to change. “In Nepal you could clearly see that women are increasingly enrolling at engineering colleges, and they are successfully finishing their studies based on merit, but in their first five years of employment in engineering organisations they drop out because they are facing all sorts of constraints. They basically suffer from heightened visibility; they tend to be the only female in a very masculine environment and that is making their lives difficult in all sorts of ways.” But, Liebrand noted that this is a dynamic also seen in the Netherlands. “Ideally, I think we should find a way to challenge or renegotiate this system of values. It’s about re-evaluating what the profession is about and I think there is potential in that.”

Building on his thesis work, Liebrand decided to continue doing research to address race in relation to masculinity and wrote a book about it. The working title is “Whiteness in engineering – tracing technology, masculinity and race in Nepal’s development” and he hopes it will be published this Spring.

The gendered dynamics of water diplomacy

Like many water-related fields, transboundary water governance is a male-dominated domain. But that doesn’t just mean that there are fewer women involved. It is reflected in the ideas, values, norms, principles, and policy priorities around water governance because these things are largely shaped by men. And it’s a reflection of broader societal gender disparities and inequities.

According to Jenniver Sehring, Senior Lecturer in Water Governance and Diplomacy at IHE Delft, most of the scarce literature on this topic focusses on the issue of women being underrepresented. “But there was not much empirical data on how their participation or lack thereof impacts the dynamics of transboundary water governance and on the role of gender beyond counting women’s representation,” she said. This led Sehring and her colleague Rozemarijn ter Horst, together with the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), to do a comparative study of three river basins. The Nile Basin, Rhine Basin and Chu-Talas Basin were chosen because they have transboundary institutions where women hold leadership roles. The project aimed to explore the different experiences of women in these positions and look at whether it changes the way conflicts are dealt with, thus if and how gender affects how decisions are made.

To share insights from this research and build a community around the topic, IHE Delft hosted a virtual workshop in September 2020 called ‘(En)Gendering Transboundary Water Governance: Feminist Perspectives on Water Conflict and Cooperation’. The event brought together over 100 practitioners and academics to look at what role gender plays at the transboundary level. They looked at things like the often-hidden gender dynamics of water conflict and cooperation, the implicit assumptions that guide research as well as policies and how to stimulate more inclusive water diplomacy. “There were many younger scholars participating and you could see discussion and exchange with some of the more senior participants,” said Sehring. “It was nice to see this interaction and to have the idea that networks were established despite it being only online.”

When you have negotiations, Sehring explained, people tend to think about interstate agreements in terms of governments’ strategies and policy priorities. But in the end, it’s also about people at the table and it’s their personalities, their histories, their values that play a role in how they enter and conduct these negotiations. “I think this is why it’s so important to have not just one type of person sitting there, but to have diversity where gender is one part, but not the only part,” she said. “It’s also about class and indigenous peoples, for example, so there are many other aspects that play a role. But to have this diversity represented at the table brings new perspectives for addressing problems and for finding solutions.”

Sehring and ter Horst, together with Margreet Zwarteveen, are now preparing to publish a book compiling some of their research together with some papers from the workshop.

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