In many parts of the world, women and girls bear a large burden of the domestic work providing water to their families and communities – collecting and carting it from wells and tanks to do the washing, cooking, cleaning, watering of animals, and growing fruits and vegetables.
Yet when it comes to decision-making around water resources, women are seldom at the table. In remote boardrooms and government offices, decision-makers are usually male, and they make development decisions that can drastically alter the lives of thousands of people. Women typically have little or no say over these decisions.
But rather than simply accepting this situation, women all over the world are stepping into community leadership roles. They’re standing up for water and their rights, and challenging powerful government and corporate interests. From Brazil to Uganda, women are leading the charge to protect our freshwater resources.
Meet three women who are standing up for their rivers. We are proud to call these women our partners and colleagues, and to work closely with them as they fight to protect freshwater.
In South India, researcher and activist Latha Anantha leads the River Research Centre (RRC). RRC does innovative work on river basins – everything from mapping, research and advocacy to watershed restoration – while also conducting a hugely successful School for Rivers that helps local children develop a relationship with their environment.
Government officials seek her opinions and testimony on myriad projects – perhaps most notably on the Western Ghats, Kerala’s ancient mountain range and a biodiversity hotspot she’s fought for years to protect with Save the Western Ghats.
“What drives me is not the politics, or the thrill of taking leadership in something,” says Anantha. “What drives me is that the river has to flow. A flowing river, for me, is a source of energy, spirit and inspiration to go on.
“Nature has always been a source of energy for human beings. Wealth comes and goes, luxury comes and goes. But what keeps us going is something that nature tells us. That’s something which each of us has inside us.
“Nature gives us hope.”
Environmental activist Betty Obbo has fought deforestation and championed rivers for two decades. Her work helped delay the Bujagali Dam on the Nile River for 18 years. Though the dam was ultimately built, Obbo still cites the campaign with pride, because the Ugandan government now recognizes that all the criticisms of the project were accurate, and that it never should have been built. The defeat, rather than stopping Obbo, has only increased her commitment.
Now, she’s researching grievance mechanisms to see if they are actually helping communities whose properties were destroyed by large infrastructure development projects like dams. She’s also researching whether public-private partnerships are enhancing or hurting public services.
“We hope to continue engaging our government and dam financiers to focus on alternative energy,” she says. NAPE is pushing for “pro-people options that are affordable and able to propel development in Africa.
Why does she support rivers? “I was inspired to protect rivers because of the intricate functions and web of life that rivers support,” says Obbo.
In Obbo’s view, human survival depends on how we manage and care for water and the community of life it supports. “When we save a river, we save a major part of an ecosystem, and we save ourselves as well because of our dependence – physical, economic, spiritual – on water and its community of life.”
Our very own Pai Deetes has worked tirelessly in support of communities along the Mekong River in Thailand. Pai comes from a long background of women’s leadership; her mother was a senator in the Thai government and a powerful advocate for Thailand’s hilltribes, winning the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work in 1994.
Pai grew up playing in Thailand’s streams and rivers, and she saw both their importance and threats first-hand. “As a young adult,” says Pai, “I traveled the rivers in my region for myself, witnessing their horrible destruction, and I knew that I had to do everything in my power to save these rivers. Millions of lives here depend on them.”
Pai helped pioneer community research at the South East Asia Rivers Network (SEARIN). Community research methodologies bring the experiences and knowledge of local women and men into the processes of power and decision-making. Now at International Rivers, she continues her work to make sure communities rights are recognized and their voices heard.
When we support women leaders, we amplify the voices of people who know their communities’ needs best. And by respecting women’s rights as human rights, we can help to change the balance of power in how our water and rivers are managed.
International Rivers knows that when we have women at the helm, we have a better chance of achieving a sustainable future with healthy, free-flowing rivers.