I am of the personal opinion that women should be celebrated every day, hour and second a child is born i.e. continuously…endlessly. As the sole conduit for the propagation of life as we know it, women are as essential to the human race as the very air that similarly sustains it, and as such should be revered for the magnificent monuments to God’s magnanimous and artisanal nature that they are.
That being said, it is common knowledge that the greatest challenges faced by smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are faced by smallholder women farmers. Land ownership, use, and transfer, access to extension services, delivery of extension services, market access in all its permutations, cash crop cultivation, crop productivity, soil quality, credit availability; some of farming’s most notoriously debilitating concerns are borne by female farmers on a daily basis. Today however, I will highlight one BIG one; water management.
If you have lived, visited, or spent any amount of time in any rural, or even in some cases, urban section of sub-Saharan Africa; if you have lived in or visited a few homes or neighborhoods, you will likely have noticed either someone walking around with a bucket in search of water, or a water tanker supplying a home or group of people, or someone on a motor bike (or okada as they are known in Western Africa) with a “jerry-can” or two of water harnessed between the driver and the passenger with everyone, including the “jerry-can” just on the verge of sliding off. But by some divine intervention, and more often than you would think, all the passengers make it to their destination, the young girl/boy with the bucket finds a community water source or a tap in a neighbouring home with a friendly gateman who allows them to fill their buckets, and return to their homes where an older family member is waiting to use the water to cook or bathe or perform some other household chore.
Globally, between climate change and political unrest, fresh water supplies are becoming increasingly constrained, and it is estimated that some 783 million people lack access to clean or safe water. In Africa alone, women and children spend 40 billion hours annually collecting water. This is backbreaking effort which is not always successful, as oftentimes after walking miles to the nearest source, water found there is often unprotected and likely contaminated. Not only are these water sources not protected, the long roads leading to them are very insecure and are many times, the sites of harassment and sexual assault against women and young girls.
Now let us put all this in the context of agriculture. According to Nestle CEO Paul Bulcke, the world is using more than its sustainable supply of water, and “…it is anticipated that there will be up to 30 percent shortfalls in global cereal production by 2030 due to water scarcity…this is a loss equivalent to the entire grain crops of India and the United States combined.” In sub-Saharan Africa, or at least in the section of the region that I grew up in, water is perceived to be a women’s business. However as Sonomi Tanaka of the ADB so succinctly put it, “while household water management is seen as the responsibility of the women, the business of water itself, lacks women. At an institutional level, the number of women in leadership is miniscule compared to the number of men. At the community level, those doing the hard work to transport, reroute, or clean water resources are usually women, while management and distribution decision making is often within the male sphere of influence.” This exact inequity has enormous impacts on agricultural productivity in the sub-Saharan African region.
Women are essential stakeholders in agricultural water management; they play exceedingly significant roles in water and land conservation, rainwater harvesting and watershed management. However, while the majority of water related responsibilities are allocated to women, most water-related rights and powers are conferred on men. UN estimates report that of the 1.5 billion hectares of cropland worldwide, a mere 277 million hectares is irrigated land, while the remaining 82 per cent is rain-fed land1. Women play an important role in both irrigated and non-irrigated agriculture, and a larger number of women than men are engaged in rain-fed agriculture producing two thirds of the food in most developing countries2. Women’s reliance on rain-fed agriculture, is a severe constraint on increased yield and productivity, but water governance and related policies and processes often fail to take into account women’s and men’s multiple water needs and more importantly, some of the more significant gender-specific constraints. For example, access to irrigation is often strongly linked to land rights and has a detrimental impact on women smallholder farmers’ productivity and income as food producers. Gender disparities in land holdings are discernible in all regions, depriving women from accessing irrigated water, belonging to water users associations, benefitting from agricultural extension services and accessing credit as land is often used as collateral. For instance, in rural sub-Saharan Africa, women hold less than 10 per cent of the credit available to smallholder agriculture due to their inability to provide necessary collateral often in the form of land holdings3.
And so in this very important moment in time when we are taking time to celebrate and recognize women, how far we have come, and the prospects for our continued progress, let us look to this grave concern that has plagued women in agriculture in Africa for a great many years, and consider agricultural water resource management as a potential pathway towards gender equality. Eliminating this challenge will require the recognition of the role of women as farmers and irrigators, and a concentrated effort to address their asymmetrical access to productive resources, services and decision-making spheres4. Furthermore, gender issues must also be mainstreamed in all governance and decision-making processes related to agricultural water resource management; an effort that is currently championed by advocacy organizations globally.
Water is everyone’s concern. But if for some reason the sole responsibility for its day to day management is thrust upon women, then they should be granted the free and clear powers to do what they must to be successful in their assigned roles. Anything less than this complete autonomy is undoubtedly a recipe for failure and frustration, not just for women, but for everyone.
Happy International Women’s Day dear readers, March 8th, today and every day; and a special nod to all women near and far who are doing their bit to make their corner of the world a little better.
Next Up: Now Enter The Big Boys! The SAP Era & Other Stories.
1. UN World Water Development Report (2012), “Water and Gender”, Chapter 35.
2. World Bank (2006), Re-engaging in Agricultural Water Management: Challenges and Options.
3. Report of the Secretary-General: Ten-year appraisal and review of the implementation of the Brussels Programme of Action for the Least developed countries for the decade 2001-2010 (A/66/66).
4. UN Chronicle – Women and Agricultural Water Resource Management
5. MIA Sings, The Three “I”s for Women in Water: Information, Incentives, Investment, ADB.
6. Checklist for Integrating Gender-Related Issues Into Agricultural Water Management – The World Bank