The Context

The world is passing through a critical stage where large-scale development is given special priority. These developments, however, pose a serious threat to a sustainable future. Water is the basic resource we derive from our environment, it is nature’s most precious gift to the mankind. Its conservation, therefore, demands a new approach grounded in scientific knowledge and cultural and ethical practices. Since time immemorial, women have been considered as the repositories of environmental wisdom. Women have always been the ones to find the water, choosing the sources according to accessibility, availability, distance, time, quality and use. They are often recognized as the best water users and managers. Women’s knowledge and experience in the supply and use of water is outstanding.

Role of Women in Water Management

Women are always active participants in water management for rural agriculture beginning from seed selection and storage and souring and transplanting to harvesting. According to a study conducted by J. B. Patal & B. N. Sadangi of the Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology (OUAT), in Bhubaneswar, 23% of farm women participate in irrigation management in Orissa. Same is the case in households where women are the prime users of water. Women’s contribution is not only through physical labour but also through active participation in decision-making. Their knowledge of water conservation techniques is based on sets of empirical observations about local environments and systems of self-management that govern resource use. In the use water, it is the women who are naturally skilled and who make effective use of the indigenous techniques. Women in developing countries are often referred to as water suppliers and water managers. Daily collection of water is almost always the responsibility of the women and it is the women who decide on how it is to be used within the household. Thus, the role of women in preserving the ethical and moral values related to water is of utmost relevance to present day society.

Women derive water without interrupting the natural processes by which it is regenerated. They help in improving the quality of water by means of various non-toxic botanicals thus managing their water resources in a sustainable manner. The home gardens and other non-irrigable common lands are also the domain of women. On these lands, they develop a land use pattern, which help to enhance water and soil preservation. In the home gardens, women grow certain trees that help to conserve water.

Local women use various sources of water such as village irrigation tanks, rivers, streams and wells. A woman’s source of water depends on where she lives and the season of the year. For example, during the wet season those who reside near the irrigation tank go to the tank for water and those who are near the river use the river. In the dry season women dig wells usually in paddy fields and also in the tank bed or the riverbed. Women are the best coordinators to use water for different purposes, i.e. fetching water for drinking, bathing and washing clothes, watering cattle and buffalo. This symbolizes women’s cooperation in utilizing common water resources and minimization of wastage.

The manner in which local women have traditionally made use of nature in order to obtain water can teach us a great deal about meeting our own water needs in situations of scarcity, and doing it without any adverse effects on environment. There are few basic examples how women are the best preservers of this precious entity. However, this indigenous talent of the rural women in the field of water management faces some gaps, which constrain the future growth in knowledge base.

The Gaps

The fundamental gaps identified in this matter can be divided into two. First, the existing gender discrimination created by the specified gender roles; and second, the contradiction between the principles of sustainable development and socially permitted attitudes.

As gender is the primary social differentiation among adults and economically active members of a society, it is logical that specific spheres of activity will become the specialized domain of different gender. As a result of this gender specialization, the indigenous knowledge and skills held by women often differ from those of men.

The ongoing trends of the so-called large-scale development are always contradicted by the concept of globalization, liberalization and the theory of sustainability. The fundamental traits of sustainable development are peace, democracy, human rights, equality, efficient use of energy resources, local community involvement, fair distribution of wealth and participation of all sectors of people in decision making. But in practice, these basic principles are not found. The pivotal role of women as providers and users of water and guardians of the living environment has seldom been reflected in institutional arrangements for the development and management of water resources.

It is a fact that women are the part and parcel of environment. Their role has been quite dominating in keeping the environment sustainable. However, the present social set-up creates an unequal division of labour where women are sidelined and not even exposed to indigenous skills. The role of women is generally marginalized and ignored in developmental activities. Most of the development policies aim at the openness of trade and financial flows. Liberalization policies have favoured economies of large-scale farming and plans are, therefore, made at the macro level. As a result of reduced government spending on rural infrastructure, the productive use of water is being hampered .In many societies women do not have the same opportunities as men and they are often treated as a vulnerable group. While the situation of women has undergone important improvements, marked disparities exist in almost every area. Despite the Indian government’s policies, it is evident that stark economic inequalities persist between men and women, their access to resources, control of assets and decision-making. The irony lies in the mindset of the people that gender roles are frequently mirror images and the division of male and female gender role is inherent. This typical approach to the gender perspective of development is an obstacle to the overall development.

The Proactive Approach

The proactive approach hinges on the following four propositions:

Women in Decision-Making

While one’s sex does not change, gender roles are learned and changed overtime. These roles are built by tradition and politics and need and vary from culture to culture. Women’s knowledge and experience in the supply and use of water is invaluable, and many problems can be avoided if women are consulted. Women’s empowerment and enhanced participation in policy making and decision making in all spheres of activities (economic, political, social and cultural) at community, national and international level is an essential requirement for the elaboration of gender responsive rural development policies.

Enhancing Existing Indigenous Knowledge

Indigenous knowledge systems are capable of forming a basis for sustainable development. Their capacity to innovate on the basis of gendered knowledge generating process must be recognized and respected. Enhancement of existing traditional knowledge can be successful through professional training and scientific techniques.

Communication Technology as Catalyst

Access to modern means of communication technologies will empower women and will help in curtailing inequality in the field of professional education.

A Holistic Approach for Sustainable Development

Water is the key to socio-economic development as well as an essential factor in sustainable development. It should be properly linked to other relevant factors. There is a need for a fundamental shift in thinking and to develop an ability to internally balance competing water users’ interests. Moreover, additional needs will have to be carefully articulated and water quality must be given adequate attention. A holistic approach relating to role of women and water management can help us make a sustainable environment.