Participation People

Towards sustainable food security

Women and water resources

Prepared by the Women in Development Service (SDWW)
FAO Women and Population Division

WORLDWIDE, THE DEMAND FOR WATER is growing rapidly, and in many countries the cost of developing new supplies is becoming prohibitive. Simultaneously, increased water pollution is worsening the imbalance between water supply and demand. For these reasons, water resources development and irrigation are of critical importance in efforts to improve food security and sustainable agricultural production.

Women play an important role in water management. They are most often the collectors, users and managers of water in the household as well as farmers of irrigated and rainfed crops. Because of these roles, women have considerable knowledge about water resources, including quality and reliability, restrictions and acceptable storage methods and are key to the success of water resources development and irrigation policies and programmes.

Irrigated agriculture

In many cases water resource policies and programmes have proven detrimental to women's water rights and, therefore, to their sustainable management and use. Interventions such as irrigation habitually fail to take into consideration the existing imbalance between men and women's ownership rights, division of labour and incomes. By raising the value of the land, irrigation brings about social change which usually favours men.

Irrigation systems also tend to favour monocropping, often for the production of cash crops, and thus may exclude provisions for a more diversified cropping pattern supporting a variety of food crops. As cash crops are usually controlled by men, decisions regarding the scheduling of irrigation water tend to be made without consideration for women's farm and household activities.

Women's entitlement to water is often precarious at best. Since they must depend on small scale or hand irrigation, they have difficulties coping with drought. Often the technologies that are available to them do not respond to their needs, such as pumps with handles they cannot reach or manipulate or that they have not been trained to repair.

Women's agricultural practices must usually be adapted to soil moisture conditions that depend on the vagaries of the climate and the conditions of their soils. When women's survival strategies lead to erosion, their farming practices can be major sources of watershed instability.

Water supply and sanitation

Women and children provide nearly all the water for the household in rural areas. Domestic water is used for processing and preparing food, for drinking, bathing and washing, for irrigating home gardens and watering livestock. Women know the location, reliability and quality of local water resources. They collect water, store it and control its use and sanitation. They recycle water, using grey water for washing and irrigation, and runoff from these for livestock.

Women make multiple and maximum use of water sources, and attempt to assure that these sources do not become polluted. Given their multiple and often competing needs, such as water for livestock and for human consumption, as well as time and resource constraints, women often cannot avoid contaminating water supplies. As water sources become contaminated from humans, animals or agricultural runoff, or as drought increases or water sources deteriorate due to watershed mismanagement, women and children must walk longer distances to secure water. Some 30 percent of women in Egypt walk over an hour a day to meet water needs. In some parts of Africa, women and children spend eight hours a day collecting water.

Poor water access and quality affect not only women's crop and livestock production and the amount of labour they must expend to collect, store, protect and distribute water, it also affects their health and that of their families. All types of water related diseases and especially water and vector borne diseases affect millions of poor each year. Women must take care of the people who are ill from malaria, onchocerciasis, schistosomiasis and diarrhoea, and replace with their own labour the labour of those who have fallen ill.

Improving water resource efficiency

It is now recognised that the exclusion of women from the planning of water supply and sanitation schemes is a major cause of their high rate of failure. International initiatives, such as the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade and the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), have been instrumental in promoting the role of women in water management. They are increasingly trained on water pump operation and maintenance and perform leadership roles in Drinking Water Users' Organisations.

Yet, the incorporation of gender issues in the planning, design and implementation of irrigation programmes has been far more limited despite the number of studies documenting the failure of irrigation schemes due to mistaken assumptions regarding the intra-household division of labour and organisation of production. In an irrigation scheme in northern Cameroon, for instance, one third of the scheme's development area remained uncultivated due to intra-household labour conflicts.

Gender analysis can help irrigation planners and policy-makers to improve the performance of irrigation schemes. There are three broad areas in irrigated agricultural production systems that require particular attention, and where a more thorough, gender-based analysis of local situations will help to create more effective, equitable and sustainable irrigation policies and programmes.

Irrigation design

In order to accommodate the water needs and requirements of both male and female farmers, it is necessary to identify who will be using water, the amounts needed, at what times and for what purpose. For this, local participation in project design activities is essential, and thorough discussions should be held during each phase of project planning with different segments of rural communities (village leaders, male irrigators, adult women, youth, and men and women from poorer households).

The Cidurian Upgrading and Water Management Project in Tangerang, West Java, Indonesia conducted a pilot programme for the inclusion of women farmers in planning of the project, after it became apparent that they were not participating. Separate meetings and four special training sessions for women farmers were organised, with the following objectives:

Field staff, other officials and men farmers were involved in special training and discussion sessions on the need for women's involvement.

Legal, administrative and organisational arrangements

Ensuring women's use and control of land - and irrigation water - is fundamental. Studies have shown a direct correlation between independent land and irrigation rights for women and a higher productivity of land and labour. Thus, land allocation under irrigation schemes should be to individual farmers rather than to households.

In regards to Water Users' Associations, all farmers who own or rent irrigated plots as well as all adult family members who work on irrigated plots, including women and young adult children of plot holders, should be members. Women should also be guaranteed leadership positions based on the proportion of women as members or as participants in the scheme.


Water delivery schedules should be devised in such a way as to accommodate both men's and women's needs with respect to quantity, timing and quality of water. Also, training in water control and management, cropping calendars, and system maintenance should be extended to women as well as men.

Given that women's incomes are considerably lower than men's and that the capital requirements to invest in irrigated crops can be quite high, access to credit systems should be made available to women irrigators. Access to credit will also facilitate women irrigators' access to technology.

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