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Can India's water management infrastructure address gender vulnerability issues?

By Monami Bhattacharya, Megha Gupta, Mansee Bal Bhargava* 

The climatic pattern of the earth is evolving and changing for a very long time, but in the recent times spanning this century, the change has been drastic which has raised serious concerns to all. Climate criss is also clearly manifested as gender crisis where women are more vulnerable besides being more voiceless to raise the issue. India is marked as a highly climate-vulnerable nation. In addition, the gender disparity in the patriarchal society seems deeply and naturally ingrained among all.
According to the Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2021, India ranks 140 among 156 countries in the world. Essentially being the third worst performer in South Asia (Global Gender Gap Report 2021). India is further ranked 7th in the global climate risk index by Germanwatch (Eckstein et. al., 2021).
Recent reports also state that two Indian coastal cities, Kolkata and Chennai rank among the top ten cities vulnerable to climate change both in terms of population and assets. In the past, we have witnessed how cyclones have created havoc in these places. In 2018, the Composite Water Management Index Report published by NITI Ayog declared that India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history.
The lives and the livelihood of the people are under threat. Further to add to this distress, the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) states that 68% of districts in India are facing drought or drought-like conditions. Looking at this from a gendered lens because of being a patriarchal society, the vulnerability of the women is prominent. Statistics indicate that bsdies women, elderly people and children are in most cases the worst affected.
The Wednesdays for Water organised a session on ‘Gender, Water and Climate Change’, which brought together the Sustainable Development Goals SDG05 (Gender Equality), SDG06 (Clean Water and Sanitation) and SDG 13 (Climate Action). The speakers of the session are Dr Vishal Narain (Professor, Management Development Institute Gurgaon) and Chandni Bedi (Director, Rural Management and Training Institute, Navjyoti India Foundation, Gurgaon). Vinni Munjal (Water Resources Officer, Government of Haryana) is the discussant and Dr Fawzia Taranum (then TERi-School of Advaced Studies Delhi) is the moderator.

Climate change from a gendered lens

When discussing climate change, the concept of vulnerability, adaptability and coping mechanisms are of significance. The dire state of climate change impacts in India is now a common discourse especially pertaining to water vulnerability from a gendered lens.
Vishal Narain started with the concepts of gender, water and climate change in the peri-urban context with focus on vulnerability. Vulnerability indicates that the impact of climate change is felt differently by different people/groups/community. It is no exaggeration to say that vulnerability is gendered.
Vulnerability, from the gendered lens of understanding, can be decoded by its three basic components, primarily exposure, sensitivity, and coping capacity. Talking of exposure, the gender-based division of labour at both the workplace and home plays a definitive role in determining vulnerability based on the timeline of exposure. The coping capacity on the other hand indicates that both men and women have different coping capacities.
The component of sensitivity is gendered too as it is known to be a combination of the other two. Statistics show that besides water epidemics mortality rates of women are higher than men in the events of climate-induced disasters like floods. It is primarily due to the societal norms, including poor coverage under early warning systems, responsibilities at home, sanitation needs, etc., that the gender disadvantage exists.
In the context of the peri-urban areas, water insecurity exists owing to the threat that expansion of the urban areas brings. There is a growing competition for groundwater extraction, and the acquisition of village common properties like ponds, etc. This reality has unfolded in most per-urban areas of cities. The effects of such water insecurity is further aggravated by the impacts of climate change in the form of variable precipitation patterns, and shifts in seasons among others.
There is a significant land use change in the rural and peri-urban areas leading to more male workforce migration to cities. This has a causal effect on the feminisation of agriculture and thus increases the responsibilities of women in their homes as well. This translates to increased water-acquiring or collecting responsibilities of women.
For example, case study of Budhera village in peri-urban Gurugram (earlier Gurgaon) where a grazing land was acquired to build a water treatment plant to meet the increased needs of Gurugram. This caused households to switch from grazing to stall feeding. While livestock grazing was an activity primarily performed by men, fodder collection was undertaken by women. Owing to the changes caused by the conversion of grazing land, the responsibility of the women in fodder collection increased.
Another example is the case study of Mukteshwar where the prime land parcels located near the springs were acquired to build resorts, hotels, etc. for tourism. This resulted in the local communities losing their access to water. The impact was further aggravated by climate change in the form of reduced snowmelt, rainfall, and recharge in springs etc. The forests were converted into reserved forests and were cordoned off, cropping patterns noted changes and all of these increased women's responsibilities in fodder collection.
Thus, it is important to understand the gendered dimension of peri-urban spaces and the need for more formal policies or state directives in this regard to address climate change and importantly to address gender matters.

Engendering water and women

Chandni Bedi recollected the journey of the Rural Management and Training Institute (RMTI), Navjyoti India Foundation highlighting the process of engendering water and women in several rural areas of the country. For example, the case study of Surna Block in Gurugram where in 2001 a Mahapanchayat was organised to raise awareness about water conservation.
It was notable that no women attended the program. This led to the mobilisation of women in the year 2003. In 2004, the government’s policies highlighting the need for economic and social empowerment of women were realised and thus self-help groups (SHG) were organised.
In 2005, the Government introduced the Accelerated Water Supply Program with the objective to provide drinking water supply at every doorstep. With climate change impact already evident, the scheme further resulted in the groundwater depletion and the situation aggravated owing to poor rainfall.
Source: Chandni Bedi's presentation
For the next five years from 2006 to 2010, efforts were made by RMTI to bring women to the forefront by having interventions around economic activities, empowering them socially and giving them leadership roles to manage water in their neighbourhood along with their household. This led to increased capacities, yet decisions were not completely undertaken by them and ended up adding more to their existing workload.
From 2011, it was understood and appreciated that gender issues cannot be understood in isolation. Men and children played a key role in engendering water matters and thus a programme was designed for their inclusion. Engenderign water management can be simply understood by the popularised 5P’s: perceptions, positions, priorities, potential, and preferences. Interaction with the women and men of the villages showed the difference that existed in the 5 P’s according to each of the gender groups.
In a particular instance, a pond in the village was dried up and RMIT facilitated to convert it into a green space. The women folks participated in the discussions and designed the green space according to what they understood as their needs. Today, it is a beautifully maintained green space which is utilised by all. In the due course of time, women learnt to develop from just saving to generating income.
In this process, men too formed their community-based organisations taking ownership of the activities and discussions. The village hence from being a typical patriarchal flag bearer with gender biases developed into an all-inclusive place and is still growing by the day. It is important to navigate the ways amid social and power relations to bring a change in the society. To upscale such initiatives some key learning to embed will start with the design thinking towards public participation especially women in the discussion here.
The state of affairs needs emphathy, clear definition, ideation of the action plan, prototyping, then testing and taking the feedback and learning to start allover from the beginning which is exactly what is tried at RMIT over the years to work with women folks and bring that required change in the society to manage water as well as patriarchy.

Way forward

Vinni Munjal shared the background work of how a compendium of the Women Water Champions from the grassroot level came into being in 2021. The compendium was developed by the collaborative efforts of the National Water Mission, Ministry of Jal Shakti, UNDP India and Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).
The project documentation mapped the several women water champions from across the country to highlight the vivid experience of gender issues at the grassroot level. The compendium brought out the role of 41 women from the grassroot level for their committed efforts in water conservation and management.
These water champions are from different regions including the tribal belts and with different socio-economic and educational backgrounds. Their effots range (not limited to) from mobilizing communities on water conservation and participating in water use efficiency programs, creating rainwater harvesting infrastructure, irrigation management, agriculture productivity restoration of non-water to various awareness building programs.
Their roles have been instrumental in leading the local water user groups. Their work highlights how they secured their livelihoods and protected their communities including empowering other women. These real-life narratives of the women water champions present a promising future for women in the water sector.
Learning from this session and the tale of the grassroot women initiative, a pertinent question is how existing water management infrastructure in India can/must addresses gender issues and how they could be designed towards gender equity?
Ideally, infrastructure is supposed to be gender-blind, but further goes on to stress the need for sensitising and training water professionals differently on gender or social differentiation. Ironically, the gender blind thing when dealt by majority men naturally tends to be men-friendly and not that women/children friendly, a simple example is the height of water tap in public water points.
Another pertinent question how far LGBTQ is added to the water discourses? The need to understand the difference between gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation is to fully appreciate the intersectionality in the water discourse. In conclusion, it can be stated that with the growing water stress and increasing impact of climate change, to fully understand and appreciate, it is required to have a holistic approach from the gendered lens at rural, urban or peri-urban landscape.
There are simples ways to start with, one is to consciously bring in more women in the water sector and many efforts are on some of the interdisciplinary programs to have more female enrolments than do conventional engineering programs and the other is too is to sensitize the water bureaucracy, the engineers and the Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) in the drinking water utilities to take conginzance of gender as well as the social difference.
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Wednesdays.for.Water is an initiative of the WforW Foundation, a think tank, built as a Citizens Collective. The idea of Wednesdays.for.Water is to connect the water worries and wisdom with the water warriors through dialogues/discussions/debates. The objective is to get in conversations with policy makers, practitioners, researchers, academicians besides the youth towards water conservation and management. The other team members of WforW are, Dr. Fawzia Tarannum (Climate Reality India) Prof. Bibhu P Nayak (TISS-Hyd), Ganesh Shankar and Vasantha Subbiah (FluxGen-Blr), Garbhit Naik, Monica Tewari, Harshita Sehgal, Proshakha Maitra, Anubhuti Shekhar (ED(R)C-Ahmd), Vandana Tiwari, Kalpana Patel, and counting. The Wednesdays.for.Water is reachable at wednesdays.for.water@gmail.com and WforW Foundation is reachable at hellowforw@gmail.com and hello@wforw.in. The WforW Foundation social media are reachable at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.
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*Monami Bhattacharya and Megha Gupta are independent scholars and fellows at Eco Development and Research Cell, ED(R)C Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation. Mansee Bal Bhargava is entrepreneur, researcher, educator, speaker and mentor. Environmental design consultants, Ahmedabad, www.mansee.in, www.wforw.in

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