Equal access to water and the governance in six countries.

Equal access to water: Improving gender relations around water access, use & governance in six countries.

Report from UN Development Programme Published on 17 Oct 2016.

Women and men access, use, and benefit from water differently; yet due to existing gender disparities, their relationship to water is often unequal. In many households, women are the primary users and managers of water for domestic activities, including cooking, cleaning, subsistence agriculture, health and sanitation; men primarily use water resources for income-generating activities such as irrigation for cash crops or supporting livestock. These inequalities are being further exacerbated, as climate change is causing increased water scarcity and uncertainty, more extreme flooding and droughts, and polluted freshwater resources.

Adaptive water solutions

With support from the Government of Canada under the Canada-UNDP Climate Change Adaptation Facility (CCAF), and the Global Environment Facility’s Least Developed Countries Fund, six countries are implementing climate-resilient water management measures as a means of adapting to these climate change impacts. Working in Cabo Verde, Cambodia, Haiti, Mali, Niger and Sudan, context-specific adaptation strategies implemented by CCAF are addressing the impacts of climate change on water resources in three ways:

1) Water for drinking and domestic use: This includes individual water storage tanks, installing water networks connecting homes to water sources, solar-powered pumps, drilling of tube-wells, and construction or rehabilitation of open wells and reservoirs.

2) Water sources for watering small-scale vegetable gardens: This includes individual home gardens (Cambodia, Cabo Verde, Haiti) and collective gardening plots (Niger, Mali, Sudan);

3) Water for irrigating agriculture: This includes collective ponds for watering crops, rehabilitation of small-scale irrigation infrastructure (small dams, check dams, water reservoirs and channels), and installation of drip irrigation systems.

Water equality

In implementing these adaptation solutions, an explicit effort has been made to address the underlying gender dynamics in each country. This means ensuring that the benefits equally reach men, women and children. Oftentimes these benefits are measured in men’s terms – i.e. improving agricultural irrigation which results in better crop production and higher income levels. However, with the right interventions, there are many benefits that target women and children as well.

Improving water access and governance often leads to improved hygiene, fewer diseases, and improved safety and education of children. A specific benefit of improved water access is a reduced workload for women and girls, providing more time for other more productive things. In sub-Saharan regions, women may save up to three hours of daily work when water is available near their homes in the dry season.

Water conflicts

During periods of water scarcity, conflicts over water occur frequently both at household and community levels. These conflicts often have a gender dimension, given the difference in men and women’s uses of water, their roles in society, and their power structures. Communities do not always have the mechanisms in place to equitably distribute water and address these conflicts. In times of water scarcity tensions can run high.

In Cabo Verde, Ms. Filomena F., a woman from Órgãos Pequeno, Santiago Island, explains: “In my village, June-July is when we face water scarcity; in that period, men go at night to take water for irrigation, so when women go out in the morning to get water for the house, there’s no more water in the reservoir. This creates a lot of tension!” Under the CCAF project in Cabo Verde, impressive networks of water reservoirs and canals have been developed to increase access to water for irrigation. To avoid reinforcing existing gender inequalities in water access, monitoring mechanisms were put in place to ensure that women enjoy equal access to the new system.

In all 6 CCAF projects improved access to water has reduced tensions at the household level and has had a positive impact on gender relations and family well-being.

Women as leaders

Women’s participation and leadership on water management is imperative for ensuring equitable water access. CCAF activities therefore complemented new water infrastructure with active support in the creation of water management groups. With women as equal and active participants, these mechanisms can support equal distribution and use while also leading to significant positive changes in gender dynamics at the household level.

In Cambodia, the CCAF activities sought to increase women’s leadership and participation in local water management committees. In 2014, efforts to support the election of women to formal positions in these groups meant that 55 percent of villages had at least two (sometimes three) out of three group leaders who were women. By 2015, the target goal of 40 percent female membership was met.

In order for women to exert influence over decision-making and to contribute substantially to adaptation action it is imperative that they are able to actively participate in the groups formed at local or regional levels. Supporting women’s participation in groups is a long-term investment.


Enhancing water access and management does not, in and of itself, build gender equity or advance gender equality. However, it contributes to reducing women’s workload, and when coupled with gender-sensitive approaches that ensure equitable water access and management, the provision of water can also influence gender power dynamics.
All six CCAF projects have worked to strengthen resilient access to water, taking a proactive approach to ensuring equitable water access and management – improving the overall health and well-being of entire families. More specific examples and experiences are explored in the new publication Filling Buckets, Fuelling Change: Ensuring Gender-Responsive Climate Change Adaptation. The publication provides highlights specific inputs, resources and partnerships needed to design and implement effective gender-responsive approaches.


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