New book: Why so few women in water leadership?

The leaders and staff of river basin organizations that regulate water in many of the more than 300 transboundary river basins in the world tend to be men. Why are there so few women? And does it matter whether men or women rule water? Rozemarijn ter Horst, Margreet Zwarteveen and Jenniver Sehring tell how their new book, “Gender Dynamics in Transboundary Water Governance: Feminist Perspectives on Water Conflict and Cooperation”, explores these questions and more.

A lot of research has looked at the role of gender in local water management, in particular at who does what. Who plants the seeds, who harvests, who regulates the irrigation channels, who fetches water for the household? But there’s been little focus on gender in river basin organizations – important institutions that create policies on the allocation, use and preservation of waters that cross state borders.  Our research and new book – available open-access here – fills a gap by focusing on gender dynamics in transboundary water governance. With contributions from 20 authors on basins including the Brahmaputra, the Chu-Talas, the Danube, the Indus, the Jordan, the Nile and the Zambesi, as well as reflections from practitioners, the book sheds new light on women’s experiences in water leadership and the inherent masculinity of current water policies.

Navigating a masculine world

Water diplomacy and transboundary water governance are based at the intersection of engineering and diplomacy, two highly masculinized fields. Guiding principles, core ideas and norms in both fields are shaped by men and based on male experiences, and leading positions are mainly held by men. Women who do not fit within these core ideas and norms face challenges so frequently that they often navigate them unconsciously without noticing the gender dynamics at play. Some, however, are aware of the dynamics and make use of them to their advantage. Heide Jekel, who represents Germany in six international river basin commissions and several bilateral water commissions, says in the book that she sometimes tries “to be more feminine to level with the expectations.” She adds: “Although I do not become this ‘little woman’, I cannot fake it, I do become a bit more flattering and more polite, and I become conscious of what I say.”

Often, women in male-dominated fields find that they have to work harder than male peers for the same recognition. Maria Amakali, Director of Water Resources Management Directorate and Acting Deputy Executive Director of the Department of Water Affairs at Namibia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Land Reform, noted that requests for a simple clarification in a negotiation can result in male colleagues launching into long monologues: ”Issues you know are explained to you and the explanations have nothing to do with your question, thus derailing the question and prolonging the negotiation process.” To avoid this risk, women have to be better prepared than men, she added.


Gulmira Satymkulova,and Indira Akbozova leaders of the Secretariat of the The Chu-Talas Commission, one of the book’s case studies (Credits: Madina Ibrasheva)

Intersectionality – the interplay of gender, race and class and other differences that influence how we act and think – are a key part of gender dynamics in water governance. In the book, Maria Amakali recalls being mistaken for a secretary after joining Namibia’s Department of Water Affairs in 1991 as a hydrologist. For her colleagues, it was hard to understand that a Black woman in newly independent Namibia could hold a professional position. But Amakali’s education, including a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics and Chemistry earned in the United States and a MSc from IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, had prepared her to help fill her country’s need for water managers.

Though gender plays out very differently depending on country, institutional platform, and moments in time, there is a knowledge hierarchy based on the intersection of discipline and gender. Hydrologists and engineers – often male-dominated fields – are often considered more important and knowledgeable on water than biologists, lawyers, or geographers – fields in which women are more common.

Internalized stereotypes

Gendered norms are often so deeply internalized and embedded in the way we think and act that we don’t recognize them.  They also travel through global media, and are reinforced through popular culture. Hence, both male and female water professionals from around the world told us that women were better listeners. Women are generally considered more caring and less self-interested, and more eager to find and accept compromises. Men are generally considered more confrontational, competitive and ready to engage in conflict to get their way. Such stereotypes influence behavior:  participants in water negotiations said sessions involving women were more cooperative – not because of the women’s behavior, but because their presence made the men involved politer and less confrontational. Explicit and conscious use of feminist theories helps to make these internalized gender expectations visible so that they can be addressed.

Does it matter?

So why research gender? Because ignoring the personal in the politics of transboundary water governance erases the inequality in experiences, and therefore also obscures possible ways in which these inequalities can be addressed. The in-depth case studies and analyses in our book show how the ideas and norms related to gender impacts both the practical decision-making on water and the academic discourse on it. They also uncover the structural obstacles that dilute the effects of well-intended gender mainstreaming policies. In addition, it collects a selection of personal stories about gendered experiences in water negotiations and transboundary water governance, and we hope it will spark others to share more. Gender equity is one key aspect of equitable water governance.

The book will be launched on 3 November at the Humanity Hub in The Hague, from 17.30 to 19.00, followed by a reception. More information about the event and a registration link can be found here.

Cite this blog post
Rozemarijn ter Horst (2022, October 21). New book: Why so few women in water leadership? FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

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