Community and Participation in Water Resources Management: Gendering and Naturing Development Debates from Bangladesh


Sultana, Farhana. 2009. “Community and Participation in Water Resources Management: Gendering and Naturing Development Debates from Bangladesh.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34 (3): 346–63.

Author: Farhana Sultana


Community and participation have become popular in development discourse and practice, particularly in the global South and in relation to water resources management. Greater involvement of people in decision making, implementation and evaluation of water management practices is expected to increase efficiency and equity in water projects. However, scholars have pointed out that such discourses are often problematically used and idealised, leading to the exacerbation of gender, class and other social differentiations. Drawing from a case study of drinking water contamination by arsenic in Bangladesh, this article examines the mobilisation and outcomes of participation and community in water provision and arsenic mitigation. Water hardship, conflicts and marginalisations are found to be products of social processes (that are gendered, classed and spatialised) as well as natural processes (local geohydrology, depth of arsenic sediments), in addition to the very ways that community and participation are conceptualised and practised. Nature ⁄ water comes to play a critical role in the ways that development interventions play out, thereby complicating the general debates around community and participation. This article seeks to problematise the ways that considerations of both the roles of nature and gender power relations can be more critically and productively engaged in development geography. As such, the article brings together debates in nature–society geography and development geography to argue that scholars studying community and participation need to pay greater attention not only to gender and spatial power relations, but also to the importance of geographical locations and the agency of heterogeneous nature in the ways water management and development interventions fail and succeed, and are thereby critiqued. More adaptive, reflexive and inclusive development realities that are simultaneously embedded in society and nature may then be envisioned, and more nuanced understandings of nature-in-development enabled.


In this article, Sultana challenges the trend amongst development policymakers to assume that community participatory water management institutions, by default, equally benefit all members of the community. Chief among her critiques is the fact that most discourses on this subject operate on an imaginary construct of community homogeneity, thus failing to take into account the complex interlocking gender and class-based hierarchical systems that structure communal water resource management. Further, Sultana calls for a synthesis of the separate strands of literature on nature-society relations and community / participatory projects, on the grounds that by directing attention towards nature’s inherent heterogeneity and unpredictability, scholars can better understand the evolution and thus specific societal role of water management institutions in a community. Sultana bases her arguments on a study of Bangladesh villages where differentiated arsenic distribution was instrumental in determining whether the development of water management institutions reinforced or subverted existing societal hierarchies.


“Traditional notions of participation in village life are often worked out through patronage systems and kinship structures. It is within such unequal set-ups that participatory water management projects often embed themselves and thereby perpetuate cycles of inequality. As a result, participation is a process that involves conflict and consensus, within broader historical factors and constraints, and not just a mechanism to facilitate project success or a set of techniques, although this is primarily how it has been treated in most development projects.” (349)

“Blindly assuming that having rich or elite women participate in the [water management] project leads to ‘gender mainstreaming’ can be problematic, as exclusions and privilege may become institutionalized...There may be a range of different lines of connection and differences that situate women differently from each other, and the myth of female solidarity thus does not hold up to the ways that women may choose to pursue different desires, connections, and needs (for example, not all women in a neighborhood may be similarly exposed to contaminated water or have similar water needs).” (349)

“Given that participation activities are largely conducted in public spaces, or what are perceived to be public activities of decision making and sharing opinions, notions of femininity and masculinity can be challenged when women and marginalized men are involved.” (350)

“While most women felt that they should have more decision making powers, and expressed interest in voicing their opinions and having more decision making capacities, the majority were not willing to challenge the norms and authorities of their husbands, fathers, brothers or elders in order to do so.” (358)

Topics: Civil Society, Class, Development, Economies, Economic Inequality, Environment, Gender, Women, Men, Masculinity/ies, Femininity/ies, Gender Mainstreaming, Gendered Power Relations, Gender Equity, Infrastructure, Water & Sanitation Regions: Asia, South Asia Countries: Bangladesh

Year: 2009

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