Women in Freshwater Management

A NextGen Blog post by Johanna Mitra, Stony Brook University.

All Photos © Alison M. Jones.

Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed and hydrology education with internships and blog opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series hosts student essays; sponsors a forum for its high school senior, college and grad contributors; and invites proposals from new students to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Johanna Mitra is currently an undergraduate student at Stony Brook University. She is majoring in ecosystems and human impact with a focus on wildlife conservation and minoring in geospatial science. This blog was written in honor of Women’s History Month to raise awareness of the need for more women in positions of environmental decision-making. Read her earlier posts for NWNL: The Use of Photography in the American Conservation Movement, Citizen Science in the Raritan River BasinMacroinvertebrates in the Mississippi River, Cycles of Dependency, and her blog series on migratory birds and the Flyways of the Americas.

Across most of the world’s developing nations, women and children are often entirely responsible for water collection. In fact, women handle 70% of global water use for domestic, health, and food production purposes.[mfn]Fauconnier, Isabel, et al.[/mfn] Yet, very few of them can be found in decision-making roles regarding freshwater resources. Women hold a mere 7% of natural resource and water management positions worldwide.[mfn]Harris, Maureen[/mfn] As access to fresh water—and more importantly clean fresh water—is diminished, women with these close ties to their local water resources can bring invaluable knowledge and new solutions to address the growing water crisis.

Rajasthan woman accessing water from well at a gas station

How Are Women and Water Connected?

The relationship between women and water in developing countries is the result of longstanding and common “gender division[s] of labor,” wherein women are tasked with “water-related responsibilities” and men with “water-related powers and rights.”[mfn]Njie, Ndey-Isatou and Tacko Ndiaye[/mfn] Women, and often their daughters too, can walk for hours to collect and bring water back home for the purposes of cooking, cleaning, bathing, and other domestic and sanitary needs.[mfn]Njie, Ndey-Isatou and Tacko Ndiaye[/mfn] Around the world, an estimated 200 million hours a day are spent collecting water. That represents time which could have otherwise been spent at school, pursuing work, or taking care of other necessary tasks.[mfn]UNICEF[/mfn] Because of these responsibilities, women are at a significantly higher risk than men when it comes to exposure to water-borne diseases, wastewater and other harmful pollutants.[mfn]Clench, Callum[/mfn]

[Editor’s Note: After a 2005 Ethiopian expedition, NWNL wrote about the Tragedy of Fistulas suffered by African girls carrying cans of water too heavy for their small frames. Sadly, too few get to the Addis Ababa Fistual Clinic for needed surgery.]

Young girl collecting water Masarua Dam water catchment

Women also make up as many as 70% of workers in Africa’s agricultural sector, which uses 80% of the continent’s water.[mfn]Clench, Callum[/mfn] In India, women make up about 2/3 of the agricultural sector.[mfn]Salopek, Paul[/mfn] Through their productive and domestic uses of water, women make important decisions about its allocation and consumption on a daily basis, while also contributing significantly to global food production and their own national economy.[mfn]Njie, Ndey-Isatou and Tacko Ndiaye[/mfn] Despite their heavy involvement in water management on an individual level, women’s voices are rarely heard when it comes to large-scale transboundary water management.

Bringing New Perspectives to Freshwater Management

NWNL’s three case study watersheds in Africa – the Mara, Omo, and Nile River Basins – all have transboundary rivers shared by two or more countries. Each basin faces mounting pressure from the demands and impacts of a growing population, agricultural development, as well as shifting precipitation and temperature patterns as a result of climate change. In 2007, the UN’s “Water For Life” Chair, Robert Sandborn stated, “As women play a central role in water provision and management, a special emphasis will be placed on ensuring the participation and involvement of women in these development efforts.” During NWNL’s 2009 interview, Joseph K. Terer, Project Manager for the Nile Basin Institute, expressed the need for including “as many [stakeholders] as possible… to solve these problems together and from all corners.”[mfn]Terer, Joseph K.[/mfn] Many environmental and governmental agencies now realize that one stakeholder in particular—women—have been left out of key discussions surrounding water resource management for too long.

A 2018 IUCN report put it this way: “In transboundary settings, the importance of women as productive water resource users means that they are key actors and stakeholders when it comes to dealing with challenges and identifying solutions around resource-sharing across borders.” Giving women a platform for sharing their first-hand knowledge on water-related issues has the potential to transform the way transboundary water problems are identified and handled.

In Kenya’s Mau Forest catchment, students learn about the importance of forests to their water supplies

In the Mara River Basin, where freshwater shortage in both Kenya and Tanzania is becoming a significant issue, women can help to fill in the gaps about how water is being allocated and where water resources might be being wasted. Further north, women in Ethiopia’s Omo River Basin can offer insight into how hydroelectric projects, such as the three controversial Gibe River Dams, affect the amount and quality of water used for domestic and productive both upstream and downstream.

As the world’s longest river, the great Nile River is immensely strained to supply each of the 11 countries within its river basin with life-sustaining freshwater.[mfn]No Water No Life[/mfn] Fortunately, solutions to water overuse in the Nile Basin have already been developed as a result of the transboundary cooperation of women. One example, cited in the same IUCN report, is the story of how women “across the river and national boundaries of the Nile Basin” pooled their agricultural knowledge within their respective countries to implement more sustainable and less water-intensive farming practices like crop diversification.[mfn]Fauconnier, Isabel, et al[/mfn] In 2019, The Stockholm International Water Institute started the ‘Women and Water Diplomacy in the Nile’ to support local women water professional’s role in decision-making and peace building solutions in the basin.

Women of the White Nile River Basin selling grain in a Ugandan town square

Outcomes of Diverse Management

As water security becomes increasingly uncertain in the Mara, Omo and Nile River Basins, it is clear that more diverse perspectives can provide innovative solutions. Research shows that in countries where women have a greater say in water resource management, communities experienced improved access to clean water, as well as less violence and conflict caused by water scarcity.[mfn]Trivedi, Ayushi[/mfn] In India, for example, women legislators have invested 62% more resources in sanitation and improvements in water access than men. The result has been a greater emphasis on long-term sustainability.[mfn]Fauconnier, Isabel, et al[/mfn] As part of maintaining our natural resources for future generations, equity in water management roles must continue to be a priority for conservationists and environmental groups.


Clench, Callum. “The Transformative Potential of Women in Water Resource Management.” International Institute for Sustainable Development, March 7, 2019. Accessed on March 7, 2021 by JM. https://sdg.iisd.org/commentary/guest-articles/the-transformative-potential-of-women-in-water-resource-management/

Fauconnier, Isabel, et al. “Women as Change-Makers in the Governance of Shared Waters.” International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 2018. Accessed on March 7, 2021 by JM. https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/2018-036-En.pdf

Harris, Maureen. “Women’s Rights and River Protection.” International Rivers, March 7, 2019. Accessed on March 7, 2021 by JM. https://www.internationalrivers.org/news/in-the-media-womens-rights-and-river-protection/

Njie, Ndey-Isatou and Tacko Ndiaye. “Women and Agricultural Water Resource Management.” United Nations. Accessed on March 7, 2021 by JM. https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/women-and-agricultural-water-resource-management

“Nile River Basin.” No Water No Life. Accessed on March 6, 2021 by JM. https://nowater-nolife.org/nile-river-basin/

Salopek, Paul. “India’s Daunting Challenge: There’s Water Everywhere, and Nowhere.” National Geographic, August 2020. Accessed on March 8 by JM. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/indias-daunting-challenge-there-is-water-everywhere-and-nowhere-feature

Terer, Joseph K. “Transboundary Management.” NWNL Voices of the River Interview, October 5, 2009. Accessed on March 7, 2021 by JM. https://nowater-nolife.org/transboundary-management/

Trivedi, Ayushi. “Women Are the Secret Weapon for Better Water Management.” World Resources Institute, October 18, 2018. Accessed on March 8, 2021 by JM. https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/10/women-are-secret-weapon-better-water-management

“UNICEF: Collecting water is often a colossal waste of time for women and girls.” UNICEF, August 29, 2016. Accessed on March 7, 2021 by JM. https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/unicef-collecting-water-often-colossal-waste-time-women-and-girls

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