Gender, Labor and Water Resource Management


The value of environmental health to industry and government is determined by who has the power to advocate for resource regulation and development. A lack of citizen perspective in international water development has created a profound gap between the concept of sustainability touted by development agencies and the water needs of small communities. Environmental sustainability has been previously regarded as an impediment to the “preservation and enhancement of the quality of human life” by resource development agencies and has only recently become a priority of resource development in India (Sen 2009 248). International water resource NGOs have come to realize that water resource development “is subsumed in ecology … and sound ecological balance will determine the continued availability of water ” (Iyer 2003 59). Treating nature as a “residual” priority in water resource management and policy has actually led to the global decline in freshwater availability because unregulated water use has led to over extraction and careless pollution (Hunt 2004). As policymakers have come to understand the importance of water, they have struggled to place a monetary value on this resource for its use by both communities and industries. While environmental health is now recognized as an important aspect of water development, it continues to be compartmentalized as “’an economic and social good’” that can be sold and divided (Iyer 2003 78).

Environmental development and water management have long been subjects of cultural and intellectual discourse in India. Ramachandran Guha, India’s most prominent historian, frequently correlates political conflict with a lack of water access (Guha 2011 Location 3872).. Ramaswamy Iyer, who was the former Indian Secretary of Water Resources, has written about how the cultural value of water informs policy and can lead to its commodification (Iyer 2003). Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel Prize winner in Economic Sciences, extensively wrote on the economics of drought and, similarly to Iyer, frames water as a powerful tool for driving or hindering social development (Sen 2011, Location 363 Sen 2009 Location 3211). Even Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India’s nationalist movement, perceived the link between water ownership and political independence and also championed women’s equality (Gandhi 8, 80-81; Gandhi 1930 212, 218, 219). Vandana Shiva, a leading advocate for sustainable agriculture and resource development in India, is arguably the only prominent female intellectual who currently has a strong presence outside of India. She is also a water rights and gender equality advocate, and investigated the link between water privatization and violent conflict (Shiva 1989).

While all of these intellectuals advocate resource equality and women’s rights, it is clear that intellectual discourse about water in India lacks greater representation of women. Few women have influential positions within academia and water policy in India and international institutions. Industries that are critical to water and irrigation projects, such as civil engineering, have also historically lacked a significant percentage of female employees. Indian politics, from local offices to national bureaus, also do not have strong female leadership. The absence of women across all of these sectors obstructs women from advocating for their own resource needs in the political sphere and within water resource policy.


Project beneficiaries are central to development policy, but sometimes the communities in greatest need of resource development are not recognized as stakeholders. International, national, and regional laws and policies determine the distribution and consumption of water in an attempt to achieve ecological and social sustainability. The goal of resource management institutions is to enable the capacity of individual and communities to make informed choices about water use and conservation (Alsop and Kurrey 9). Water resource management organizations in India perform administrative functions well but have struggled in the development sector, specifically with sharing technical information and providing proper technical training for the constructors and beneficiaries of water projects (Alsop and Kurey, 104). The successful dispersal of this knowledge directly contributes to the fair allocation of water and sustainability of local projects.

At the heart of developmental policy are the project stakeholders, a term that is distinct from the more passive ‘beneficiary’. As said by Iyer:

Surely those who are displaced, who lose their land, habitat, occupations, livelihoods, and centuries-old access to natural resources – who are in fact, stake-losers. – ought to be regarded as the primary stakeholder. They cannot be put on the same footing as, much less ranked lower than, the beneficiaries in the command area on whom the project confers water rights that they did not have before, they are stake-gainers (Iyer 2003 60).

His words frame the greater struggle between government agencies, non-government organizations (NGOs), industries, and communities over water resources. Women in rural developing communities are the ultimate “stake-losers” because they largely regulate the water use of a household and are heavily involved in agricultural work, but their contributions and responsibilities often go unrecognized by community members and policymakers. Due to their lack of authority, women are less likely to receive critical training and information from NGO water management programs.

But even with such disadvantages, women in rural communities are actively working to protect natural resources and expand water access throughout their communities. Women are heavily involved with KJBF programs and historically have been key actors within many environmental movements (Karan 1994 40). Women are traditionally perceived as the caretakers of nature, a role that acknowledges their important contributions to water resource management but also unfairly removes responsibility for environmental stewardship from men (Jackson 1998 315).


Industrialization of agriculture in rural Indian communities like Wardha has intensified resource inequality due to increased water demand, which has inordinately affected women. Despite the creation of various bureaus and policies, Indian water resource policy is vague and lacks the power to implement resolutions in a timely manner. Disputes like the Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala conflict over the Cauvery River in South India exemplify the stagnating speed of resolution, as the tribunal overseeing the conflict lasted for twelve years (Iyer 2003 40). An attempted revision of national water policy failed because states had conflicting water demands, which made the resulting legislation increasingly scattered and directionless (Iyer 2003 56).

The Indian Supreme Court has previously concluded that water resources must be collectively owned and managed by the state, but it fails to enact its own rulings. The central government used water resource legislation to increase agricultural productivity and began constructing dams and irrigation canals, the first being the Deccan Canal in 1930. Yet the government did not allocate services directly towards water resource conservation or drinking water until formation of the National Ministry of Water Resources (NMWR). In 1956 NMWR drafted the Inter-State Water Disputes Act (ISWDA), which attempted to create a judicial process for resolving interstate water conflicts (Iyer 2003 53). Its legislation focuses on water management and sanitation, watershed conservation, and drinking water at two levels of regulation: by a village council (panchayat), and city council (nagarpalikas) (Iyer 2003 23). Later legislation, like the 1974 Water Pollution Control Act (WPCA), worked to increase water quality standards and allocate governing bodies water management responsibilities (Haryana State Pollution Control Board).

Water rights are closely linked to land rights, but this connection is less frequently recognized by the Indian government in order to sell water rights. Typically, only landowners can become members of Water Users’ Associations (WUAs) and access canal water (Sangameswaran 2009, 196). To summarize the water policy infrastructure of Indian communities like Wardha: “the statutory framework and the law governing water in India are fragmented and inadequate, there is no coherent water policy, and there is a lack of infrastructure and of water resources” (Narain 2010 6).

Both panchayats and city water councils are vulnerable to corruption and inaction, but panchayats have been successful in advocating for land rights for minorities. However, women in Wardha have limited land inheritance rights in part because of a lack of legal enforcement. There is a social stigma surrounding female land ownership, but policy recommendations like the 2008 Nine Point Charter are slowly working to establish the legal power of women (Rukmani and Manjula 2009 86-87). One proposal even seeks to grant collective land entitlement rights, which directly benefits Women’s Self-Help Groups. If women and other minority groups understand water as a human right rather than as a product, then citizens can use policy as a way to “hold the state accountable” as a water provider (Narain 2010 2).


A temporary sandbag dam built by the state government, about 100 yards from a KJBF check dam construction sit

A completed KJBF check dam at a different site
A completed KJBF check dam at a different site

Irrigation and water development projects in Indian have been riddled with costly problems. Poor construction and uncontrolled water delivery are just some of the issues that can impact agricultural yield and exacerbate problems like water logging and siltation. Smaller water infrastructure projects, if completed at all, are often built without proper planning and then have a decreased lifespan or water capacity (Swain and Das 2008 29, Interview 19 February 2013). Rural communities are now less trusting of the government’s ability to complete rural water projects, especially when they are required to contribute their own funds or resources in order to receive project benefits. The spiraling costs of crop failures, flood damage, and displacement are just some of the costs associated with water management crises (Swain and Das 2008 29, Cronin and Guthrie 2011). Many of these events and expenses could be easily avoided or minimized by monitoring of water levels and constructing adequate water management projects.

Years of state conflicts and resource mismanagement have left the public extremely hesitant to trust that any government program or project will actually be successfully completed (Iyer 43 2008). Curiously, such blatant misuse of money and power is rarely discussed in international water development literature in India. This lack of acknowledgement likely stems from a fear of damaging partnerships between private institutions and government agencies.

Regardless of whether this oversight is intentional, it still impacts the data and findings of water management research that is used to formulate resource development programs. The Indian Central government and international agencies like the United Nations and World Bank depend upon economic evaluations as a means of measuring large-scale economic change, but this potentially overlooks the mechanism behind economic development. For example, many studies l(e.g., Fan et. al 2000) have argued that irrigation improvements have only a marginal impact on agricultural development. Considering recent issues like the Maharashtra Irrigation Scandal, it is little wonder that irrigation investments have had only a modest impact on agricultural productivity. Only when government programs are removed of corruption can broad quantitative analyses accurately correlate water resource investments with economic growth.

The culture of corruption in Wardha hindered my ability to communicate with KJBF staff and beneficiaries and contributed to my struggles with research interviews. Many villagers and KJBF employees were hesitant to discuss various government scandals about irrigation and check dam funding that filled the newspapers such as the Maharashtra Irrigation Scandal (Khetan 2012, TNN 2012, Jain 2013). KJBF staff was also unwilling to talk about how they navigated working with a culture that accepts corruption as a standard practice. One advantage of KJBF is that it is not an international agency and most of its employees are from the Vidarbha region, so they might have an acute understanding of local politics that enables them to avoid complications like extortion or bribery. KJBF maintains extraordinary transparency over its funding and organization activities, but more information about how it manages to work with corrupt government agencies or companies would be very useful to helping other NGOs do the same. Their reluctance likely stems from a desire to avoid confrontation caused by speaking out against corrupt practices. Just as I had to restructure my filed interview strategy, my future research needs to navigate the unspoken customs in order to find the necessary information.


In order to determine the underlying causes of government dysfunction and the misplaced priorities of NGO projects, it is important to investigate who has controlled government institutions and what shapes their water resource management decisions. Gender is important to both the creators and beneficiaries of rural water development policy because it shapes the structure of management programs and the agency of women to be involved with programs and projects (Jackson 1998 313). Historically, women have not held government positions and are even less frequently involved in the construction or management of rural water development projects. The absence of women from positions of power within a household or in project management is due to exclusion rather than a lack of interest. Men have long controlled policy institutions and NGOs, and projects overwhelmingly focus on construction-intensive projects to increase irrigation capacity with less consideration for domestic water needs (Jackson 1998 315, Singh 2008 939). Policy and rural development research should focus on enabling the agency of women so that they can fully utilize their capacities and skills (Jackson 1998 313).

Development researchers have slowly been investigating the relationship between gender and water management, but women are treated as a “special interest group” rather than a major field of study within resource development. The 1973 USAID Percy Amendment is noted as the first policy to directly involve women in economic growth in developing nations, which later led to the focus on involving women in rural water resource programs (Axinn 1988 71). Between 1975 and 1985, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) acknowledged that women contribute greatly to the food, water supply and income of rural households (Axinn 69 1988). Both the Indian central government and international agencies “have made water for women a cornerstone of their development and humanitarian efforts” (Ray 2007 423, World Bank 2011 16). But the methods and policies are not implemented effectively because they overlook the cultural nuances that affect gender dynamics at a local level.


Contrary to the expectations of policymakers, citizens within a rural community do not equally benefit from water development projects because women, low caste and ethnic minorities rarely receive the same opportunities as men or landowners. A consequence of this assumption is that women in rural communities have limited access to education and comprehensive water resource training programs because of their low social status. This can lead to men receiving farm training for activities traditionally done by women, with the assumption that the training knowledge would be shared within the family (Axinn 1988 70). New water development policy needs to better understand how gender affects the water resourcing responsibilities within a household.

Rural water development programs often overlook how the “micropolitics” of collective management at a local level impacts the success of projects. There are rural hierarchies shaped by caste, land ownership, religion and ethnicity. These underlying problems exacerbate the difficulty of women’s jobs in rural communities. So there is a cyclical problem: women from upper castes are most likely to be elected as members of water group, but they are the least likely to participate because they acts as a puppet so that their husbands or other male household members can control their political seat. Women also don’t feel ownership over the projects and expect men to do the technical maintenance.

A fundamental reason for this lack of access is because women are rarely acknowledged as irrigators despite conducting at least 50% of agricultural work. World Bank projects often confine women to domestic roles to women and invalidate their role in farming and irrigation (Green and Baden 1995 93, Ray 2007 436). The cause of this lack of recognition is that men and women undertake different agricultural duties. Men are typically held responsible for more technology-intensive processes like tilling or spraying chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but women are largely the ones who weed and gather crops (PRA Interview 25 February 2013). Project strategies also needs to account for the kind of farming systems that are used by communities because this changes the timing of water usage, pesticide spraying, etc. These cycles, in turn, affect the schedule and time constraints of women laborers (Green and Baden 1995 98).

Rural water projects have commonly used the nuclear family model to distribute project responsibilities, which does not account for the gender division of tasks and goods within a household. Greater consideration needs to be taken of the power dynamics and distribution of tasks between men and women because they “have different ideas of what constitutes personal as well as household well-being,” which serves as the basis of the negotiated collective IWRM model used by many NGOs (Ray 2007 426). Rural water development agencies assume that women work fewer hours per day and thus have more time for development activities because they are not recognized as farmers. Yet women work longer hours on average than men because they have to balance domestic and agricultural obligations.

When problems like water-logging are resolved for farms, “the amount of work doesn’t change but the profit changes” for women (Field Interview 19 February 2013). While additional income is undoubtedly of great benefit to a household, a lack of free time for women prevents them from joining a SHG or becoming a Village Volunteer. Oftentimes water development programs actually shift paid work for men to unpaid volunteer positions for women. This action designates women the thankless role of being sole caretakers of the environment, removing responsibility from men. This unpaid work is especially unfair to Wardha women because female employment has decreased in District even as it has nearly doubled elsewhere within Maharashtra state (Rukmani and Manjula 2009 47).

There are many indirect health consequences of poor and inaccessible water resources that largely affect women. For women and young girls, water resource management projects do not change the amount of daily work but instead increase agricultural profits (Field Interview 19 February 2013). Women struggle to work during the day because they are exhausted from collecting water late at night from farmers (Thakare 47). They already spend up to 30% of their daily energy on fetching at least 100 liters of water per day. This demand is worsened by malnutrition that affects 50% of the world’s women, and such physical strain leads to long-term back and joint damage (Singh 2006 938, Ray 2007 430). New water management programs benefit the whole family but place greater burdens on females in the household.


The commoditization of water directly contributes to corrupt water management practices that especially affect women. Some academic researchers in water development are “ opposed to the commoditization of water on perceived ecological and feminist principles” (Jackson 1998 316). The emerging ecofeminism movement of the 1990s argued that women best know how to use natural resources and saw a connection “between the marginalization of women and of the environment.” But this approach was criticized for idealizing women’s relationship to natural resources and removing water management responsibilities from men (Ray 2007 425).

Companies profit from privatization by gaining control over community water systems and metering the amount used by households. While government agencies and NGOs function within a formalized water economy and want to bring water infrastructure into rural communities, the majority of water use and transactions occur outside of these regulated channels. This idea also fails to consider that families operate within economies in which regulated pricing and distribution might be impossible. Regulating local water use also ignores the informal negotiation processes that women use to procure water (Green and Baden 1995 95). Neighbors might trade water in exchange for goods or siphon off water from old tube wells when government projects fail (Dhanagare 1992 1422). Policymakers often want to implement expensive and cumbersome regulation, such as meters and institutionalized management, These systems often fail to deliver clean water on a consistent basis, forcing women to choose between using water for domestic chores or for crops that sustain the family’s income. Most households do not have the monetary funds to purchase water and thus have to barter or tap their own resources. So formal water distribution by government agencies or foreign NGOs can actually be cumbersome and expensive for rural communities.

Women need to walk increasingly longer distances to wells and allocate more of their household budget to purchasing water from tankers (Thakare 45-46). Sporadic water delivery leaves women in a constant state of panic and they have to allocate longer periods of time just to wait in line for water. Choosing will become an even more difficult choice. Water privation dissolves any control that women have to manage water resources for their communities and reinforces gender hierarchies because few, if any, women are employed at the managerial level within water distribution companies. Privatization leaves women powerless, so it is especially crucial that women become involved with NGO-led rural water development projects that are based on collective ownership.


The calculations of women’s activities for a Participatory Rural Appraisal revealed a new dimension of the relationship between water and commoditification. Because Wardha district has experienced intense drought and industrialization, women had come to treat water as a product rather than a right. Like buying food or domestic goods, water became a central part of the women’s household economies as it has gained new monetary value. Other studies have found that women use water projects intended for domestic activities for other purposes like such as backyard irrigation, beer brewing, dairying, brick-making, icemaking, and construction (Mokgope and Butterworth 2001). These activities demonstrate the ingenuity of women in rural communities, and emphasize the link between stable water supplies and economic stability. Greater access to water resources enables women to dedicate more time on small income generation projects, and these earnings can help mitigate economic inequality in villages (Ray 2007 428).


Male farmers that benefit from KJBF check dam and irrigation projects.

Male farmers that benefit from KJBF check dam and irrigation projects.

While male farmers have disproportionally benefited from rural water development despite equally intensive workloads of women, they also face gender-specific challenges (Ray 2007 422). Farmers like Dilip, 56, rely on the help of their sons to manage the land and eventually inherit the land rights to the farm. He “failed to convince his sons to do agriculture … [but] finally he has water [because of a KJBF irrigation scheme], and now he is earning well” (Interview 21 February 2013). His wife and daughters may not be free to make the same choices for their livelihoods, but for Dilip, effective water management has so greatly improved his profits that his sons might reconsider farming as a viable career. For male farmers, there is a strong sense of pride and inherited obligation to pursue farming as a livelihood. When small farms struggle, young men feel pressure to join careers that have a more masculine reputation, such as engineering or computer science. Reviving small farms could help curb the ongoing migration of young people from rural Wardha to large cities like Nagpur, Pune and Mumbai.

Farmer suicides are one of the most serious problems in Wardha District and they are predominantly male. Two farmers interviewed for this project had seriously considered suicide before KJBF intervention, which emphasized the urgency and importance of this topic. Many male farmers have heavy debt from buying expensive seeds and farming profit margins are low, especially during times like drought. They do not think that their fate is changeable because they lack adequate assistance from government or NGO agencies, and this desperation frequently contributes to a farmer’s decision to attempt suicide. Famer suicides further marginalize women because widows have few inheritance rights or means of livelihood to support their families (Rukmani and Manjula 2009 86).

KJBF does not have a specific counseling program for farmers that are contemplating suicide, but it offers more than technical support. KJBF staff talk openly about the problem of farmer suicide, so at-risk farmers might be more likely to approach them if they are struggling. Having a specific program just for preventing farmer suicide also might not work because male farmers would feel too stigmatized to use such a service. KJBF is able to intervene with the difficult circumstances of male farmer suicide because it works within local cultural norms. These observations do not relieve men of their responsibility to treat women equally, but they illustrate how all community members are affected by the constraints of static gender roles.