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Water & Sanitation

The Right to Water: Politics, Governance and Social Struggles.


Sultana, Farhana, and Alex Loftus. 2012. The Right to Water: Politics, Governance and Social Struggles. New York: Earthscan.

Authors: Farhana Sultana, Alex Loftus


The right to clean water has been adopted by the United Nations as a basic human right. Yet how such universal calls for a right to water are understood, negotiated, experienced and struggled over remain key challenges. The Right to Water elucidates how universal calls for rights articulate with local historical geographical contexts, governance, politics and social struggles, thereby highlighting the challenges and the possibilities that exist. Bringing together a unique range of academics, policy-makers and activists, the book analyzes how struggles for the right to water have attempted to translate moral arguments over access to safe water into workable claims. This book is an intervention at a crucial moment into the shape and future direction of struggles for the right to water in a range of political, geographic and socio-economics contexts, seeking to be pro-active in defining what this struggle could mean and how it might be taken forward in a far broader transformative politics. (Amazon)

Topics: Infrastructure, Water & Sanitation, International Organizations, Rights, Human Rights

Year: 2012

A Gendered Critique of Transboundary Water Management


Earle, Anton, and Susan Bazilli. 2013. “A Gendered Critique of Transboundary Water Management.” Feminist Review 103 (1): 99–119.

Authors: Anton Earle, Susan Bazilli


The starting point of this paper is that most of the international transboundary water management (TWM) processes taking place globally are driven by ‘the hydraulic mission.’ Primarily the construction of mega-infrastructure such as dams and water transfer schemes. The paper argues that such heroic engineering approaches are essentially a masculinised discourse, with its emphasis being on construction, command and control. As a result of this masculinised discourse, the primary actors in TWM processes have been states. Represented by technical, economic and political elites operating in what generally gets termed ‘the national interest’. Left out are the local communities relying on the resource directly: the water users; the poor; women; and other important groups. Instruments such as the UN Watercourses Convention of 1997 make an effort to present an attempt at a gender-balanced approach. Through asserting the importance of the ‘no-harm rule’ and the ‘equitable share approach’. However, they end up supporting the status quo through the omission of any reference to gender issues. The paper provides an overview of the masculinised discourse on TWM institutions, proposing that this is the case because of the intersection of two masculinised fields. Water resource management and the disciplines engaged in the research of transboundary water management, namely, political science and international relations. The paper investigates two southern African examples that illustrate the potential for including a gendered perspective and pro-poor policies that take into account the needs of the water users or ‘stakeholders’. The analysis includes the international and regional legal agreements on transboundary water issues, searching for evidence of a gendered approach. It is concluded that the laws and organisations responsible for transboundary water management currently do not reflect a gendered approach, despite the international recognition given to the necessity of including women in water management structures at all levels.

Topics: Economies, Gender, Women, Gender Balance, Gendered Discourses, Infrastructure, Water & Sanitation, International Organizations Regions: Africa

Year: 2013

Global Water and Gender Policies: Latin American Challenges


Dávila-Poblete, Sonia and María Nieves Rico. 2005. “Global Water and Gender Policies: Latin American Challenges.” In Opposing Currents: The Politics of Water and Gender in Latin America, edited by Vivienne Bennett, Sonia Dávila-Poblete, and María Nieves Rico, 30-49. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Authors: Sonia Dávila-Poblete, María Nieves Rico

Topics: Development, Gender, Globalization, Infrastructure, Water & Sanitation Regions: Americas, Central America, South America

Year: 2005

Unequal Burden: Water Privatisation and Women’s Human Rights in Tanzania


Brown, Rebecca. 2010. “Unequal Burden: Water Privatisation and Women’s Human Rights in Tanzania.” Gender & Development 18 (1): 59–67. doi:10.1080/13552071003600042.

Author: Rebecca Brown


Access to water is a critical component in advancing the human rights of women. Although privatisation of water services continues to be pushed by donors such as The World Bank, the available information shows that privatisations are not increasing access to water for poor women. This paper examines the human right to water and why this right is critical for women and girls. It then discusses privatisation, and the tension between contractual obligations and respect for human rights. Finally, it explores some strategies and successes from women’s involvement in the struggle against water privatisation in Tanzania.


In her article, Brown argues that the privatization of water is inherently at odds with the increasing international recognition of safe, accessible, and affordable water as a fundamental human right. A study of water privatization in Tanzania, the country with the lowest percentages of water access in the East African sub-region, demonstrates that when water is made into a commodity (often at the behest of international monetary institutions), those socially disadvantaged by their gender or their class suffer the most. According to Brown, supporting women to become active contributors in the implementation of human rights by incorporating them in the design, implementation, and monitoring of water service delivery can bring about lasting societal change. 
“Despite the fact that women are disproportionately affected by water sector reforms, reports show little or no consultation with women during the design and implementation of the privatisation scheme in Dar Es Salaam. Analysis of the ‘pro-poor’ water reform policies under this scheme failed to integrate an understanding of how impacts of reform can be gender-specific and, therefore, did not ensure equitable access and distribution for women and girls.” (64)
“The design and implementation of a national water strategy much ensure that the policy is formulated on the basis of equality. Every phase of the strategy must not only ensure that these women are a part of the process, but also that they are facilitated to participate as actively as possible.” (66)

Topics: Gender, Women, Girls, Gendered Power Relations, Gender Equality/Inequality, Infrastructure, Water & Sanitation, International Financial Institutions, Rights, Human Rights Regions: Africa, East Africa Countries: Tanzania

Year: 2010

Gender, Class, and Water: Women and the Politics of Water Service in Monterrey, Mexico


Bennett, Vivienne. 1995. “Gender, Class, and Water: Women and the Politics of Water Service in Monterrey, Mexico.” Latin American Perspectives 22 (2): 76–99.

Author: Vivienne Bennett


This article investigates how the women-led protests in Monterrey, Mexico that occurred at various points between 1970-1985 impacted water infrastructure legislation and reflected gendered aspects of Latin American urban social activism. Bennett situates her argument in literature linking gender and class as forces of double exploitation for poor urban women, as well as literature that differentiates between women protesting on the basis of practical concerns for social reproduction versus protests which are oriented around class or gender-based discrimination. When faced with problems related to their access to water, Monterrey’s housewives responded by banding together in their neighborhoods and establishing strategic plans of escalation that began with negotiation and culminated in disruption of government processes. Bennett argues that these women’s protests were a major factor in encouraging the “Water for All” national infrastructure project (which was passed incongruently during a period of restricted social expenditures) and ultimately in reconstructing their identities as proactive agents of change.


“...the protests contributed to the formation of new identities for women as the women of Monterrey made themselves the “active subjects of social change” instead of the passive objects of state decisions about public services.” (94)

“Although women in Monterrey participated in the protests out of their practical gender need for improved water services, the fact of their participation meant that they were proactive instead of passive. Even if they were not consciously striving to create new gender roles, their participation in the protests contributed to a reformulation of their identities as citizens that has been going on for some time in Latin America” (94)

Topics: Class, Economies, Economic Inequality, Gender, Women, Gender Roles, Infrastructure, Water & Sanitation Regions: Americas, North America Countries: Mexico

Year: 1995

The Water Question in Feminism: Water control and Gender Inequities in a Neo-Liberal Era


Ahlers, Rhodante and Margreet Zwarteveen. 2009. “The Water Question in Feminism: Water Control and Gender Inequities in a Neo-Liberal Era.” Gender, Place and Culture 16 (4): 409-426. doi:10.1080/09663690903003926.

Authors: Rhodante Ahlers, Margreet Zwarteveen


The current neo-liberal moment in water policy appears to offer possibilities for realizing feminist ambitions. Several feminist scholars see the individualization and privatization of resource rights as offering possibilities for confronting gender inequalities rooted in, and reproduced by, historic and structural male favoured access to productive resources such as land and water. But we seriously doubt a progressive feminist potential of neo-liberal reforms in the water sector. We focus on water used for agricultural purposes, because neo-liberal water proposals are premised on taking water out of agriculture to uses with higher marginal economic returns. A first set of doubts involves water as a specific resource, largely because of its propensity to flow. Rights to water are less fixed and more prone to be contested at various levels and in different socio-legal domains than rights to other natural resources. The second set stems from our disagreement with the ideological underpinnings of the neo-liberal project. It reflects our concern about how water reforms articulate with wider political-economic structures and historical dynamics characterized by new ways of capitalist expansion. Furthermore, mainstream neo-liberal water policy language and concepts tend to hide precisely those issues that, from a critical feminist perspective, need to be questioned. Feminist reflections about tenure insecurity and social inequities in relation to water clash with the terms of a neo-liberal framework that invisibilizes, naturalizes and objectifies the politics and powers involved in water re-allocation. A feminist response calls for challenging the individualization, marketization and consumer/client focus of the neo-liberal paradigm.


In this article, Ahlers and Zwarteveen undertake a feminist analysis of water policies and politics by studying agricultural water management in Latin America. They frame their argument in a conceptualization of water rights that refers to people’s relations and negotiations with others and with their environment, rather than on technical legal definitions. Neo-liberalism is understood as a force whose impacts on women and on social equity are largely obfuscated by efforts by policy makers to depoliticize, de-contextualize, and universalize water management issues. In light of the the current momentum of neo-liberal policies in the developing world, the authors challenge inherited feminist thought focussed on endowing women women with individual land / water rights, on the grounds that individual rights are more vulnerable to neo-liberal dispossession than usufructuary rights (especially for women) and on the fact that individualized conceptualizations of water have little relevance to the relational and negotiated informal water management structures that dominates in many developing societies.


“In theory and principle, ‘inside’ the neo-liberal water domain, all actors are equal or need to become equal… In line with this view, liberal gender or feminist strategies tend to focus on ‘equalizing’ and ‘including’ women… Such ‘equalizing’ measures and the underlying analysis overlook and ignore the social, cultural, and historical dimensions of gender inequities. Women cannot merely be added on to a Water Users Association with a title in their hands after male members and officials have been gender sensitizes, expecting entrenched structural inequalities and diverse world views to merge into a single harmonious agenda.” (417)

“The normative emphasis on the autonomous individual as the primary agent, or the separate self-model of neo-liberal policy and of some feminist narratives alike, is problematic in that it conceives of gender relations mainly as antagonistic and conflicting. The social dependencies that are intrinsic to water ownership should be neither denied nor romanticized but require a sound relational analysis that recognizes both collaboration as well as conflict, and that can be used to identify sources of security alongside sources of vulnerability in terms of water. Gender relations are neither solely harmonious nor antagonistic, but involve common interests as well as conflicting ones, emotional dependencies alongside economic support.” (418)

“Gender relations and identities interact with other social identities and relations. It is probably no exaggeration to say that the only thing most female irrigators have in common is their lack of formal rights and powers, but little can be concluded from this commonality in terms of gendered interests or needs. Gender is seldom the primary or most important axis along which water responsibilities and identities are divided, nor can water needs and interests be easily categorized on the basis of gender. What women and men do, need and want in relation to water is only partially shaped by gender, and is a function of complex social and political dynamics.” (419)

“Particularly in relation to the water sector, it is important for a feminist project to explicitly situate its analysis in the structural transformation currently taking place, embedding gender dynamics in the world historical process of privatisation.” (419)

Topics: Civil Society, Development, Environment, Feminisms, Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Infrastructure, Water & Sanitation, Rights

Year: 2009

Gender and Property Rights in the Commons: Examples of Water Rights in South Asia


Zwarteveen, Margreet, and Ruth Meinzen-Dick. 2001. “Gender and Property Rights in the Commons: Examples of Water Rights in South Asia.” Agriculture and Human Values 18 (1): 11–25.

Authors: Margreet Zwarteveen, Ruth Meinzen-Dick


In many countries and resource sectors, the state is devolving responsibility for natural resource management responsibility to "communities" or local user groups. However, both policymakers and researchers in this area have tended to ignore the implications of gender and other forms of intra-community power differences for the effectiveness and equity of natural resource management. In the irrigation sector, despite the rhetoric on women's participation, a review of evidence from South Asia shows that organizations often exclude women through formal or informal membership rules and practices. Women may have other ways to obtain irrigation services, but even if they are effective, these other informal ways of obtaining irrigation services are typically less secure. As resource management – and rights to resources – are transferred from the state to local organizations, ensuring women's participation is essential for gender equity in control over resources. Greater involvement of women can also strengthen the effectiveness of local organizations by improving women's compliance with rules and maintenance contributions. Further detailed and comparative research is required to identify the major factors that affect women's participation and control over resources, if devolution policies are to be both equitable and sustainable.

Topics: Civil Society, Gender, Women, Infrastructure, Water & Sanitation, Rights, Property Rights Regions: Asia, South Asia

Year: 2001

Aesthetics of a Relationship: Women and Water


Naguib, Nefissa. 2013. “Aesthetics of a Relationship: Women and Water.” In The Social Life of Water, edited by John Richard Wagner, 82-97. New York: Berghahn Books.

Author: Nefissa Naguib

Topics: Gender, Women, Infrastructure, Water & Sanitation

Year: 2013

Asian Deprivations: Compulsions for a fair, prosperous, and equitable Asia


McGill, Eugenia. 2014. “Debates and Dilemmas: Water.” In Asian Deprivations: Compulsions for a fair, prosperous, and equitable Asia, edited by Shiladitya Chatterjee, 95-119. New York: Routledge.

Author: Eugenia McGill

Topics: Economies, Economic Inequality, Infrastructure, Water & Sanitation Regions: Asia

Year: 2014

Water: From Basic Need to Commodity: A Discussion on Gender and Water Rights in the Context of Irrigation


Zwarteveen, Margreet. 1997. “Water: From Basic Need to Commodity: A Discussion on Gender and Water Rights in the Context of Irrigation.” World Development 25 (8): 1335–49.

Author: Margreet Zwarteveen


This paper examines the implications of changing water policies for women's water rights and access to water in irrigation systems. With growing water scarcity and programs to increase the efficiency of water allocation and delivery, the allocation of water rights becomes critical. Although women often have informal means and mechanisms to obtain and secure access to water, in most systems studied there is no recognition of women's specific water needs, especially for production, as opposed to domestic consumption. Current policies to privatize and devolve management of irrigation need to increase responsiveness to specific women's water needs and interests if they are to address efficiency as well as equity concerns.

Keywords: water resources, irrigation, intrahousehold, water rights

Topics: Gender, Infrastructure, Water & Sanitation, Rights

Year: 1997


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