Women sidelined at Water Forum

Posted: 25 March 2003

Author: Darryl D'Monte

Women's issues were generally sidelined at the third World Water Forum, held in Kyoto last week, says Darryl D'Monte in this special report on the meeting.

"How come there isn't a single woman in this entire panel?" was the question put to a somewhat surprised panel of Chief Executives of some of the world's largest corporations at the Forum. "After all, women form half the world's population!" Maj Fiil-Flynn of Public Citizen, an NGO in Washington, exclaimed.

While there were sessions devoted to gender issues, like the one organised by the Dutch Women's Council and Women in Europe for a Common Future on "Gender, Water and Poverty Reduction", they were certainly not on the main agenda.

The omission was by no means accidental. The Network of Women Water Professionals from Sri Lanka made a brave effort at righting the balance on the day devoted to Asia, with a session entitled "Gender and Water in the 21st Century: A Stakeholder Dialogue". From India, SEWA (the Self-Employed Women's Association) from Gujarat ploughed a lonely furrow with a panel dedicated to providing a voice to women who work at the grassroots.

Acrimonous debates

The Forum was taken up by acrimonious debates over attempts by powerful corporate and government interests - often acting in tandem - to push the privatisation of the water sector. While there were as many women opponents - notably, Maude Barlow from The Council of Canadians, who coordinated much of the campaign - there was virtually not a single woman who spoke up on behalf of the water companies, the two largest of which are from France and the third from Germany. "We are trying to break the consensus of the World Water Commission," Barlow said.

Two women stood out in particular for their strident protests. Michele Tingling-Clemons from the Michigan Welfare Rights Organisation made no secret of her antipathy to the move to privatise Detroit's water supply. She was particularly angry about the possibility that once the delivery was in private hands, it could cut off the tap connections of those who couldn't pay their bills. "If you are living in a low-income house and default on your payments, the social services may come and take away your children on the ground that the house is unsafe for them."

"They may keep them for six months or more till you demonstrate that you can afford to pay," she continued. "They are brutalising families this way and breaking them up. The only way that private companies can raise money is by reducing their services or raising prices. City officials are in collusion with these interests. It doesn't mean that public systems don't work."

This January, Detroit City Council President Maryann Mahaffey appealed to energy and water utilities to stop cutting off services to people for non-payment of their bills during the coldest months. Last year, the former Governor discontinued a programme that helped welfare recipients pay their utility bills and prevented disconnection during winter. Some 30,000 people in the area were affected by the elimination of the scheme.

"In Washington DC, the authorities are handing over water services little by little," Tingling-Clemons said. "Metering has already been given to a private operator, which will install its own equipment. There is no public service commission to oversee the process. They are trying to do this right under citizens' noses. We need to assert public control over public funds. After all, the money for the (Iraq) war is coming from us. Who's funding the whole effort?"

Huge bills

An even more spirited intervention came from Penny Bright, from Auckland in New Zealand, who represented the Women's Pressure Group. At a meeting in the main conclave, she spiritedly demonstrated a length of pipe with taps and how to sabotage the metering of water by inserting a plastic plug within it. "We have launched a civil disobedience movement; we are boycotting the local water company which is charging citizens tariffs without our consent. We are encouraging people not to pay their water bills," she said.

"Low-income families in Auckland have been crippled by having to pay huge bills, while those of the wealthy have been reduced. The poor are thus subsidising the rich. I don't trust the words of the officials at this meeting: under GATT, trade in water is about to be legitimised, being subsumed under the category of environmental services."

Meanwhile, the first Gender and Water Development Report 2003 (published by the Gender & Water Alliance (GWA), and consisting of about 150 organisations formed at the second World Water Forum at The Hague three years ago), has found that South Africa leads developing countries in linking the provision of water for and by women. It was pioneering its own versions of free basic sanitation and water services for the very poor. While other countries like Bangladesh, Zambia and Uganda were "demonstrating commitments to the gender and water link", they were facing institutional and legislative barriers to taking action.

Countries have been judged on four criteria - Water for Nature, Sanitation for People, Water for People, and Water for Food - and measured on these counts on gender sensitivity. While the progress is described as "patchy", there is evidence that gender is figuring increasingly in development policy documents. "At the same time," the GWA says, "there are some misdirected responses: for example, policies that may increase women's involvement only at the expense of also increasing their already oppressive workloads."

"We can also be positive. Gender mainstreaming in the water sector now has a momentum," says GWA Executive Secretary Jennifer Francis. "There is more knowledge about the questions and about some of the answers, and more expertise and growing cooperation in addressing and solving problems. Through this report, GWA is serving notice that it will push for more and keep a close eye on the speed of reform. At the same time, we commend those who are taking positive action to mainstream gender approaches in their water programmes, and we pledge to offer encouragement and practical support to any agencies seeking to follow suit."


Elsewhere in the meeting, there were stray references to the involvement of women in this sector. At the inauguration of the session on Sanitation and Water Supply panel, the eminent British economist, Sir Richard Jolly, castigated those who had drafted the Ministerial declaration for making no mention whatsoever of the gender agenda. "How can we go backwards on this issue?" he demanded to know. "When women take action on sanitation, facilities are maintained."

Ian Johnson, who is in charge of environmental affairs at the World Bank, advocated "responsible growth", which comprised social and environmental factors. "Women are the water-carriers of the world."

Michel Camdessus, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, who spearheaded a controversial new water funding initiative at Kyoto, told reporters that the water shortage imposed "tremendous injustice" on people. "In some parts of Africa, women are walking 14 hours a day and men eight hours. Local communities are being held back because of this."

At the end of a mock courtroom session on gender and water, agencies and governments committed themselves to action. They include the Asian Development Bank, UNDP and the Brazilian and Sri Lankan governments.

The Asian Development Bank and GWA are to sign a letter of intent for a new "Gender and Water Partnership". This partnership is to be a mechanism for collaboration on mainstreaming gender into water resources policies, including disaster and flood management. Activities include gender capacity building, developing good practices and country and regional dialogues.

Women's Feature Service, New Delhi

Darryl D'Monte is President of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists and Chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India