Making Gender Visible in Transboundary Waters

On September 29 and 30, IHE Delft hosted the workshop “(En)Gendering Transboundary Water Governance: Feminist Perspectives on Water Conflict and Cooperation.” A variety of presentations and discussions unpacked the gendered dynamics of water diplomacy and kicked off a conversation that should continue in the future.   

Transboundary water governance has traditionally been a masculine space and often, still is. Ideas and experiences that stem mainly from men constitute perceptions of a “good” water expert and thus, who should sit at a negotiation table. Gendered norms of appropriate behavior shape interactions between representatives of states over shared waters, and many resulting policies are tailored to male interactions with waterbodies. However, gendered experiences of transboundary water governance are often invisible and understudied. The “(En)Gendering Transboundary Water Governance” workshop sought to address this gap through a two-day online event that brought together more than 100 practitioners and academics. Through presentations and panel discussions, the workshop began to unpack and make visible the gendered dynamics of water diplomacy. Speakers looked at the practice of gender in transboundary water governance, the impact of gender norms on diplomacy, the underlying construction of gender narratives, and the potential pathways towards greater equity. Through discussing gendered perspectives, the workshop touched upon underlying power dynamics that can enable a more intersectional approach moving forward.

The remote workshop provided an engaging atmosphere for more than 100 individuals from around the world.

Representation of Women in Water Diplomacy

How gender is experienced and practiced was well established throughout the workshop, providing a foundation to understand the status of women in transboundary basins. The (lack of) representation of women in water diplomacy was highlighted by multiple presenters who commented on the male-dominance of the field and female gap in representation at high levels of decision-making. To understand this gap, a comparative study by Natasha Carmi, Maysoon Zoubi, Mey Al Sayegh, Charafat Afailal, Tahani Sileet, and Anthi Brouma assessed the barriers to career advancement in five Arab countries. Based on survey responses, professional women in the government water sector identified a lack of opportunity, peer support, and training in multidisciplinary skills as impediments in their work environments. Research in the Nile basin by Alexandra Said further built out this topic by identifying that national cultures that discourage females from studying technical fields, an organizational culture that emphasizes administrative roles for women, family duties that limit availability, and perceptions in the work place, all challenging the representation of women in senior water governance positions in the Nile basin.

These perceptions of women were further interrogated in basins organizations where women are well represented, such as the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine (ICPR). A case study by Rozemarijn ter Horst and Rachana Mattur highlighted how gendered expectations alter behavior in the commission, with interviewees perceiving that women and men practice different subject matters, negotiation styles, workloads, and self-advocacy. Emphasizing that gendered behaviors are socially constructed, the authors touched on how these rules of behavior are set in power dynamics and can burden all genders.

Ministers and representatives at the 16th Rhine Ministerial Conference
(ter Horst and Mattur presentation slide).

Gender-Sensitive Policies

The status of gendered policies was also addressed by presenters. Arundhati Deka and Anamika Barua discussed how water events are experienced differently by women and men in the Brahmaputra Basin. They demonstrated that while women are reliant on the river, because their role is often limited to domestic spaces, their vulnerabilities to river flooding are often not considered in policy making. Isaac Barnes, Teresa Quartero, and Leonardo Bertero similarly presented how women’s input and perspectives were underrepresented in the Bia River and Lake Chad Basins, in spite differing impacts from water stress. Barnes proceeded to argue that greater gender representation would improve the efficacy of water management, calling for greater visibility of women’s experiences.

Several policies attempt to broadly ramify this lack of representation such as through gender mainstreaming. However, gender mainstreaming has not been widely enacted, as a presentation by Jaclyn Best identified that only 63% of river basin organizations with publicly available websites conceptualized gender in their documents. Where gender mainstreaming has been adopted, other challenges arise, as explained by Ellen Hagerman, Hellen Natu, and Christine Ochieng who pointed out that gender mainstreaming processes often lack capacity and financial commitment for implementation. The authors referenced that ignoring differences between countries, a lack of a systematic focus, and emphasis on gender quotas can all contribute to shortfalls in gender mainstreaming policies. Along with other presentations, the need to address underlying power dynamics and increase focus on gendered perspectives were identified to effect positive change.

The Influence of Gender on Water Governance Processes

While the benefits of women’s representation do not need to be proven to validate their inclusion in transboundary water governance, as emphasized by opening panelist Merrell-Ann Phare, an assessment of the impact of women can provide a unique perspective. Jenniver Sehring’s research on the Chu-Talas Commission highlighted that the presence of women has positively impacted transboundary discussions. Her findings demonstrated that the perceived “appropriate behavior” when a woman is present shifts negotiations from a more aggressive style to a more cooperative style, independent of the contributions of individuals. This research underscores how the gendered perceptions of behavior can impact the practice of water diplomacy.

Medha Bisht similarly provided an example of women shaping governance through a case study on the Brahmaputra Basin, where local stakeholders were able to affect flood management between Bhutan and India. Her example indicated that the presence of women and student networks strengthened the power of local stakeholders to influence the state. She called for a relational understanding of water diplomacy, that emphasizes how individuals and groups are connected, to better understand power and state influence. Together with Sehring, she highlighted that a gendered lens can highlight actors’ perceptions on how diplomacy should be practiced, which enables others to better see and navigate the dynamics of transboundary water governance.

An example of networked governance in the Saralpara, Assam as discussed by Bisht (

Production of Gendered Narratives

As apparent from the presentations, the perception of gender shapes representation, advancement, and impact of women and policies. These gendered norms are culturally constructed, and often persistent, leading presenters to interrogate how gender narratives are produced and reproduced through various mediums.

For instance, the narratives of gender in media and literature can establish expectations of who will practice water governance. Emanuele Fantini discussed the media representation of women in Ethiopia related to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. He presented the #ItsHerDam campaign which highlights how women will benefit from the dam. In a stark contrast to men who are presented as building and contributing to the structure, the campaign was a rallying cry around women who are presented as being “affected by” the dam. Ashley Cahillane similarly assessed narratives of gender in fictional literature, finding that gender is central to post-apocalyptic water scarcity narratives where men dominate the control of water, and women engage in small acts of resistance to contest water management. These narratives were paralleled in the practice of knowledge production, as Ritu Priya and Tania Debnath assessed the representation and thematic areas of paper authors. They found that 43% of papers concerning transboundary water research in South Asia had at least one female co-author, but these numbers were considerably lower for female first or sole authors (35%), and for authors from the region, where women only constituted 19%. Topic-wise, female-led papers addressed diffusing power from the state more frequently than their male colleagues, thus creating narratives to contest the current structures of power.

An example of the #ItsHerDam campaign that has taken to social media (Fantini presentation slide).
Depiction of the Cross-border Cooperation for Sustainable Peace and Development project in the Ferghana Valley (Taganova and Yaryyeva presentation slide).

Narratives can also be produced and propagated through the practice of state-making and hydrologic control. Vivian Underhill and Linnea Beckett discussed how frontier making in the United States was not only enabled by, but spread, colonial modern gender systems. They argue that the practice of frontier making created a social organization of confined identities, enabling exploitation and racial capitalism. Muna Dajani and Hussam Hussein assessed how framing a river as transboundary can impose a technocratic, securitized narrative on water resources that centers the state perspective. This practice denies a multiplicity of experiences and ways of knowing for marginalized groups including women and indigenous and local communities. As a result, both presentations assessed how narratives can be imposed and attempt to silence the voices of many, including women.

Finally, gender empowerment projects can construct narratives that affect their impacts. Tobias von Lossow highlighted that many water projects consider gender asymmetries to be a symptom of water management and not its cause. He finds that “gender” projects are frequently presented as “women” projects, ignoring consideration of both genders and perpetuating a victimized narrative. Jahan Taganova and Annagul Yaryyeva similarly found an oversimplification of women’s issues while conducting a discursive analysis of donor literature in the Ferghana Valley. They identified that women were presented as a homogenous group and emphasized that this depiction depoliticizes a generation of women who do not have the same access to opportunity as generations before them in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In both presentations, these narratives ultimately limited the interventions. However, Margreet Zwarteveen provided an alternate perspective by arguing that gender in transboundary water governance should be framed as environmental justice. She highlighted that gender discussions often focus on claims of “sameness” between genders to argue for distributional equity while also identifying “difference” to argue for recognition of issues and representation. Her comments not only provide a narrative for empowerment work, but also emphasize that practitioners must be aware of the competing narratives that they use when seeking to advance the field.

Strategies for Inclusive Water Diplomacy

Throughout the workshop, multiple presenters identified strategies needed to address representation of gender in decision making, policies, and narratives. Although the exact strategies were debated, several common themes emerged.

Centering gender in transboundary river basins’ governance and policies was a clear recommendation. Many participants shared concerns that existing gender mainstreaming policies have been insufficient and are reduced to a “check box” exercise that does not affect systemic change. Speakers and participants alike discussed how greater commitment and funding is required, beyond the use of a “token” gender specialist or limited scope of work. The need for a cohesive and systematic approach was also identified in order to effectively address the unequal power distributions that affect gender equity. Maureen Walschot emphasized that these approaches must be multi-level and transformative. Mukunda Updahay further suggested that a more polycentric governance could be used to address these levels of scale.

Women in Water Diplomacy Network in the Nile (Pictures © SIWI).

Other recommendations focused on how to empower women within the water governance sector. The Women in Water Diplomacy Network in the Nile was presented as a successful program working to connect women of all career phases for support and sharing of institutional knowledge, while also contributing to transboundary cooperation. A panel of female water diplomats from the Nile Basin, including Ambassador Nadia Gefoun and Yodit Balcha, emphasized the value of the network and desire to extend empowerment to women at the grassroots of the basins. Other recommendations included building capacity of women in the water sector through education and training and recruiting male champions who can help to mentor, advance, and advocate for women in their work environments.

Finally, several presenters focused on the sphere of broader social change to address the perceptions and norms that impact genders. Participants identified that similar challenges are shared across professions and that women in the water sector can connect with a larger network of women’s organizations to address power asymmetries. Other speakers emphasized that gender is not a women’s issue, and that we must demand the accountability of both genders to affect equity. The discussion of broader change enabled a moment of self-reflection to acknowledge that a majority of the workshop participants identify as female, and there is space to grow and engage with a wider audience. However, by making the gendered perspectives on transboundary water governance visible, the workshop continued to build understanding and create space for future discussion.

For the organizers, it was inspiring to see so many enthusiastic professionals who work in the interface of gender and transboundary water governance, and we are grateful for their contributions as presenters and participants. We look forward to continuing the conversation of the gendered dimensions of transboundary water governance on a broader scale.

Featured image: Women engaging in discussions over transboundary water governance as part of the TROSA Water Governance Programme

Alyssa Offutt

Alyssa Offutt is a multidisciplinary consultant in the field of transboundary water governance specializing in environmental engineering and water conflict resolution.

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1 Response

  1. 30/04/2021

    […] fields that deal with dams, water resources, groundwater management, hydrology, and the likes. Gender mainstreaming thus plays a pivotal role in water […]

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