Climate change is shifting the traditional geopolitical security and diplomacy narrative. This is particularly true for hydro-diplomacy and water security issues, which are intrinsically linked to a nexus of multiple sectors including economy, food, and energy. Water resources are rapidly depleting as climate change alters the behavior and volumes of rivers and rainfalls with increased pressures on groundwater sources to meet rising industrial, household, and agricultural demands. Women in regions that are particularly vulnerable to climate risks are significantly and directly impacted by growing water scarcity. Despite this, there remains a lack of women’s representation and participation in water-related policymaking, management, and governance.
The Stimson Center’s Energy Water and Sustainability Program aims to lead and execute a two-year project to narrow the existing participation and research gap and improve policy discourse on women’s role and representation in the management, governance, and policymaking aspects of water security. The mission is to amplify the voices of women stakeholders in water-stressed regions and share their unique perspectives which are instrumental in shaping a water-secure future. Through all project activities, Stimson aspires to ensure that women’s rights are upheld, that their economic well-being is accounted for, and to highlight that investing in women means investing in the future.
The project will work to deliver the following key objectives:
- Promote incorporation of women at all levels of decision-making in order to encourage a more concerted, inclusive, and holistic approach to water insecurity.
- Produce demand-driven policy recommendations to ensure gender equity and women’s representation in the decision-making processes of water governance, policymaking, and management.
- Maximize opportunities for women through networking, interactive knowledge sharing, and intra-regional cooperation on water, climate, and sustainability issues.
- Build greater understanding and educational awareness among emerging and established female voices on regional and global environmental issues and challenges.
Why is it important to implement a gender approach to water security?
The reality of rising water insecurity takes many forms, from governments scrambling to secure basic human resources such as food and clean water to transboundary conflict over shared waters and trade. Ultimately, these are issues that will impact the lives and livelihoods of billions in an unprecedented manner and hinder regional ambitions for economic development and growth. For example, the MENA region’s water crisis is already dire in terms of creating excessive food shortages and famines, predominantly affecting the vulnerable and marginalized members of the community. However, climate change has the potential to further aggravate the prevalent refugee crisis and inter-state and inter-regional disputes around the MENA region. Regional disagreements on the Jordan River have inhibited equitable water-sharing attempts for years—adding heavily to the riparian countries’ water stress. In like manner, lack of cooperative norms and the prevalence of a zero-sum mindset over transboundary water resources in South Asia is bound to have far-reaching consequences for regional and international security.
While world leaders and policymakers are raising awareness on water security, establishing water management frameworks, and building hydro-diplomacy/ water diplomacy efforts, limited attention has been afforded to the role of women as drivers and catalytic agents within the water sector.
Women in water-stressed regions and low-income communities are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of water scarcity and insecurity. In sub-Saharan Africa, water collection responsibilities lie with the women and young girls, who often have to compromise their educations to fulfill such responsibilities. Likewise, in India, most families in rural areas rely heavily on women as the main water bearers who spend up to 4 hours each day in walking miles to access water from rivers and wells to meet household needs. Such parallels are also found within much of the Arabian Peninsula and Southeast Asia. Additionally, these women also form an important portion of the workforce through their support of the farming, fishing, and cottage industries. According to a 2017 study, women made up approximately 37 percent of the agricultural workforce in India and similar examples exist in Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Bangladesh where women continue to make significant contributions to agricultural production and overall economic growth. Beyond the socio-economic relevance of women’s role in the water sector, their voice is extremely important when it comes to water conflict prevention. In war-torn Yemen, women are on the front lines of the crisis and heavily involved in the negotiations for water resources—risking their lives while they do so.
Undoubtedly, unpredictable water scarcity and consequent politicization of water resources—all exacerbated by climate change and demand surge—have a disproportionate impact on women. Existing research suggests that any escalation of conflict in water-stressed and crisis-prone regions will also further disempower women, whose day-to-day responsibilities, health, and economic opportunities are closely tied to water access. Nevertheless, women’s challenges and contributions remain undervalued in the policy discourse.
Women, through their unique perspectives, can help build a more resilient, peaceful, and sustainable future for their communities. Recognizing the existing gender inequalities, narrowing participation gaps, and empowering women stakeholders will allow policymakers to effectively chart out an equitable and effective water security framework.