Gender, Class, and Access to Water: Three Cases in a Poor and Crowded Delta


Crow, Ben, and Farhana Sultana. 2002. “Gender, Class, and Access to Water: Three Cases in a Poor and Crowded Delta.” Society & Natural Resources 15 (8): 709–24. doi:10.1080/08941920290069308.

Authors: Ben Crow, Farhana Sultana


Water plays a pivotal role in economic activity and in human well-being. Because of the prominence of water in production (primarily for irrigation) and in domestic use (drinking, washing, cooking), conflict over water and the effects of gender-influenced decisions about water may have far-reaching consequences on human well-being, economic growth, and social change. At the same time, social conflicts and social change are shaped and mediated, often in unexpected ways, by the natural conditions in which water occurs. The social relations of water are poorly understood. This article introduces a framework for disaggregating conditions of access to water and uses it to examine three pressing questions in Bangladesh. First, extraction of groundwater for irrigation has made many drinking-water hand pumps run dry. Second, increasing use of groundwater for drinking has been associated with the poisoning of at least 20 million people through naturally occurring arsenic in groundwater. Third, the article examines some of the ways access to water has been changed by the rise of shrimp aquaculture for export. This article highlights new directions for the analysis of interactions among water, class, and gender. The existing literature has tended to focus on the implications of gender analysis for government policy, especially development projects and water resources management, and for women’s organization. In this article we begin to sketch some questions that arise from a concern to understand the broader context of social change.


In this article, Crow and Sultana use case studies from rural Bangladesh to investigate the influence of gender and material inequalities on modes of access to water and further to analyze how the intersection of gender and water can be conceptualized as a vehicle for social change. The authors identify gender-based divisions of labor, male-dominated private ownership, and policy discourses skewed towards emphasizing economic over domestic water usage, as the primary mechanisms by which gender relations impact water security and access. The expansion of irrigation projects, especially ground-pumping tube wells, illustrates how water can be used as a tool for perpetuating societal inequalities. For, the material benefits of new irrigation projects are almost entirely dependent on whether or not one controls land and the rights to its resources-- control that is consistently situated in the hands of men. Crow and Sultana perform gendered analyses of other Bangladesh-specific cases to illustrate the importance of taking gender into account at all levels of development processes.


“The quality, reliability, and costs of water for a particular household will be influenced by a range of characteristics including conditions of the water source, geographic location of the household or enterprise in relation to the water source, past social investments in water infrastructure, and the social, economic, and even political position of a household.” (711)

“Material deprivations of poverty may intersect the subordination of women to amplify health hazards for poor households. Poor women’s access to water may be doubly disadvantaged, first by the household’s weak grasp on resources and second by the low priority given to women’s work, knowledge, and responsibilities.” (713)

“Increased extraction of groundwater from agriculture has undermined recent improvements in access to drinking water. The lesson from this case is that groundwater conditions may hide conflict between two sectors, health and the economy, and between the work and interests of men and women. There may be simple ways of reducing these social conflicts. For example, drinking-water provision can sometimes be included in irrigation expansion. Lack of recognition of this type of social conflict, the relative social influence of the two sectors, health and the economy, and of the roles of men and women, could lead to declining health conditions and increasing work for women.” (722)

Topics: Class, Economies, Economic Inequality, Gender, Gender Roles, Gender Analysis, Infrastructure, Water & Sanitation Regions: Asia, South Asia Countries: Bangladesh

Year: 2002

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