Women and Agricultural Water Resource Management

Women are important stakeholders in agriculture water management—they play a key role in water and land conservation, rainwater harvesting, and watershed management. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 925 million people are undernourished and food production would have to increase by 70 per cent to feed a population of 9 billion people by 2050. Of the 1.5 billion hectares of cropland worldwide, a mere 277 million hectares is irrigated land, with the remaining 82 per cent being rain-fed land.1 Women play an important role in both irrigated and non-irrigated agriculture, and a larger number of women than men are engaged in rain-fed agriculture producing two thirds of the food in most developing countries.2 According to the latest FAO estimates,3 women account for an average of 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries but in spite of this, water policies related to agriculture continue to wrongly assume that farmers are men, thus marginalizing women in water resource management.

The importance of involving both men and women in the management of water including agricultural water and ensuring equitable access to and control over water resources have been overwhelmingly recognized by the international community. The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action called for governments to promote knowledge and research on the role of women, particularly rural and indigenous women, in irrigation and watershed management and sanitation. The Political Declaration and Agenda 21 of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, adopted in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, highlighted the vital role played by women in environmental management, their equal participation in decision-making related to water resources management and the reduction in women's and girls' workloads. Recently, the Rio+20 outcome document further stressed the commitment to the progressive realization of access to safe and affordable drinking water for all as necessary for poverty eradication, women's empowerment and the protection of human health. The document highlighted the need to significantly improve the implementation of integrated water resource management at all levels as appropriate.

Other key policy processes that have stressed the centrality of women in water resources management include the 1977 United Nations Water Conference at Mar del Plata, the 1981-1990 International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade, the 1992 International Conference on Water and the Environment in Dublin and the 2002 Johannesburg Plan for Implementation. The resolution establishing the International Decade for Action, Water for Life (2005-2015), also calls for women's participation and involvement in water-related development efforts. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women ratified by 187 countries emphasized the right of women to enjoy adequate living conditions, particularly in relation to water supply, housing and sanitation. The Platform for Action adopted at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development also underlined the linkages among women's low status, water deprivation and poverty. The General Assembly resolution, "The improvement of the situation of women in rural areas", adopted in November 2011, urged Member States to promote access to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation to improve the health of rural women and children.

It is generally perceived that the gender gap in agricultural water resource management arises from the gender division of labour and gender norms in society, which allocate many water-related responsibilities to women while conferring most water-related powers and rights to men. Indeed, studies from 45 developing countries show that women and children bear the primary responsibility for water collection in 76 per cent of households. In 12 per cent of households children carry the main responsibility for collecting water, with girls under 15 years of age twice as likely to carry this responsibility as boys under the same age.4 Women and girls spend long hours fetching water both for domestic and productive use, while their unpaid work in managing water scarcity is often not adequately recognized and addressed in policies and programmes. The hardship of women and girls associated in the primary careers of the family -- as growers and producers of food and as unpaid water collectors -- add to their drudgery and deprive them of educational and employment opportunities to break the intergenerational transfer of poverty and disempowerment.

Water governance policies and processes often fail to take into account women's and men's multiple water needs and their gender-specific constraints. For instance, recent data suggest that water allocation mechanisms give priority to agricultural, industrial and power production at the expense of household needs. Current estimates have shown that 70 per cent of the world's water is used for agriculture, 20 per cent for industry, and only 10 per cent for personal use, although these dimensions are interrelated as agricultural and industrial use of water also affect personal and domestic use. Macroeconomic and water policies also tend to consider households only as consumption units, while women's coping strategies to lift themselves out of poverty include the cleaning, conservation, storage and preparation of food, all of which require water.

Women and men use water for many different purposes including domestic, agriculture, health and sanitation, whereas men are generally only concerned with water for agriculture and livestock. Other non-agricultural water use includes personal hygiene, care of the sick, cleaning, washing and waste disposal. Recognizing the various purposes for which these local water resources are used by different groups of men and women in the community would help successfully integrate gender considerations in water management.5 It is critical to find a balance between agricultural and non-agricultural water use, and to foster more equitable and gender-sensitive water management and service delivery.

Access to irrigation is often strongly linked to land rights and has a detrimental impact on women smallholder farmers' productivity and income as food producers. Global data illustrate that women have equal property ownership rights in 115 countries and equal inheritance rights in 93 countries.6 However, gender disparities in land holdings are discernible in all regions, depriving women from accessing irrigated water, belonging to water users associations, benefitting from agricultural extension services and accessing credit as land is often used as collateral. For instance, in rural sub-Saharan Africa, women hold less than 10 per cent of the credit available to smallholder agriculture.7 Globally, only 5 per cent of agricultural extension services are pro- vided for women farmers.8 For instance, The State of Food and Agriculture 2010-2011 by FAO, suggests that bridging the gender gap in agriculture could increase agricultural yields to potentially reduce the number of hungry people by 100 to 150 million.

Women remain largely excluded from decision-making processes in water resource management. In 2012, women held less than 6 per cent of ministerial positions in the field of environment, natural resources and energy. Decisions about water sharing, allocation and distribution between different users and across regions are most often made at higher levels where economic and political considerations play an important role. Water policies based on broad, generalized perspectives are more likely to omit the local knowledge, and social and gender dimensions and their implications. Social and gender analysis conducted at the lowest possible level to capture the local context, such as the community water source, the sub-basin level or micro-water shed level, can help in understanding the problems and potential impact of the policy on different groups of women and men. Community water sources, whether natural or man-made lakes, ponds and irrigation schemes, serve many purposes in fishing, agriculture, gardening and personal hygiene.

Recent policy initiatives on water privatization have emphasized cost-sharing arrangements as an important part of demand-based approaches; in this sense user payments towards the provision and maintenance of water facilities are conceived to ensure the commitment of users to proper use and to give the users a sense of ownership over the water facilities and resources. Paying for water has gender implications. Poor people generally are disadvantaged by market mechanisms and face high opportunity costs of securing access to water in a market economy. Women may be disproportionately disadvantaged as they command lower wages for paid work including casual work, have less command over productive assets and cash in the household and have restricted access to markets for the sale of their produce.

Tariffs are often based on household income of which women do not necessarily have sole command. If they are responsible for paying for water from their own resources, their multiple disadvantages in income generation make this an additional burden. Recognizing constraints on cash incomes and projects sometimes specify that the community should contribute labour in lieu of cash. It is assumed that labour is a resource available even to the very poorest. Poor rural women face real constraints in paying cash for water supplies, or in providing labour due to their multiple responsibilities in the production and reproduction spheres. The opportunity costs of giving up paid casual work to contribute to the communal water supply is high.9

Agricultural water resource management as a pathway towards gender equality requires recognizing the role of women as farmers and irrigators, and addressing their asymmetrical access to productive resources, services and decision-making spheres. It is therefore crucial to ensure that gender issues are mainstreamed in all governance and decision-making processes related to agricultural water resource management. This should:

  • Recognize women as independent users of water and enable them to access water rights regardless of land ownership. This involves strengthening women's leadership in water policy and decision-making spheres, supporting their membership in water management institutions such as water user organizations, reducing membership fees and broadening the mandate of irrigation schemes to acknowledge and include multiple water use.
  • Increase efficiency in managing water and food resources, supporting women's roles as water resource managers, farmers and irrigators, and ensure that women are empowered along the water and food supply chains.
  • Alleviate women's and girls' unpaid work burden associated with water collection, food production and processing, and care work through provision of labour-saving technologies.
  • Address the multifaceted gender discriminations in accessing and controlling productive resources such as water and land, assets and services. This involves identifying constraints that prevent different groups of women from accessing water resources such as social and gender constructs and power relations in the community, and to facilitate the removal of these constraints.
  • Improve water supply services to cover the needs of the poorer sections of the population by initiating reforms that make water affordable to poor families in rural areas, focusing on households headed by women.
  • Provide women with technical training on water management, irrigation, rainwater harvesting, and other smallholder irrigation technologies.
  • Establish and enforce accountability measures and indicators to promote women's leadership in agricultural water management, including gender audits.
  • Enhance the capacities of relevant stakeholders from government, civil society, and the development partners to understand and address gender issues in agricultural water management and governance.


1 UN World Water Development Report (2012), "Water and Gender", Chapter 35.

2 World Bank (2006), Re-engaging in Agricultural Water Management: Challenges and Options.

3 FAO (2011), "Closing the Gender Gap for Development", The State of Food and Agriculture: Women in Agriculture 2010-2011.

4 WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for Water Supply and Sanitation (2010).

5 Extracts from "Water and Gender", Chapter 35, UN World Water Development Report (2012).

6 UN-Women (2011), Progress of the World's Women: in Pursuit of Justice.

7 Report of the Secretary-General: Ten-year appraisal and review of the implementation of the Brussels Programme of Action for the Least developed countries for the decade 2001-2010 (A/66/66).

8 http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/y3969e/y3969e05.htm.

9 Extract from Women and Water, UN (2005).