Why water is a feminist issue

Sally Abi Khalil Drought, Gender, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

If we don’t put women at the heart of the response in the most water-scarce region in the world, then those programmes will fail, says Sally Abi Khalil, Oxfam’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa

Shahd Al-Sharif works at her greenhouse in the Palestinian city of Hebron, watering plants she is growing to sell and make an income.
Photo: Iyas Abu Rahmah/ Oxfam

As the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region gets thirstier and thirstier, it will be the poorest and most vulnerable who will pay the heaviest price in the most water-scarce region in the world, especially women and their children.

Across the region, 41 million people  have no access to basic drinking water services, and 9 out 10 children live in areas of high or extremely high water stress. In one of the most unequal regions in the world, access to water is also woven into entrenched inequalities, especially gender inequality.

Climate change and water scarcity across the MENA region

Drought is ravaging Iraq, where at least seven million people are losing access to water, food and electricity because of a severe water crisis that has forced farmers to abandon their land and dying animals to migrate to towns and cities, affecting women and increasing gender inequality.

Yemenis are facing the devastating impacts of climate change, where in recent months extreme weather, including flash flooding, took lives and affected at least 28,000 people, as property and people’s livelihoods were severely damaged. These conditions have imposed a new reality on women and reshaped roles and lifestyles, adding to existing difficulties for women.

In Syria, five million people were facing a looming water crisis last summer due to drought, rivers drying up and a continuous conflict. While in Gaza, 97 per cent of water is unfit to drink as two million people trapped between the land and the sea live with the impacts of nearly 15 years of Israeli blockade.

As water becomes an increasingly rare and precious commodity, we need new, innovative, transformative and inclusive approaches to respond to this new normal.

Women and communities must lead the response

Crucially, those communities bearing the brunt of unprecedented water scarcity in the region must be at the core of the response. Women in particular need to be at the heart of responses that change the social norms that exclude them from public life and decision making.  Youth, refugees, and people with disabilities must also be heard as their water supplies deplete at terrifying speed.

A transformative approach to women’s rights is also key. Research has shown that a country’s chances of peace, prosperity and progress are not only based on the government or the economy – they are also based on how a country treats its women.

“Women need to be at the heart of responses that change the social norms
that exclude them from public life and decision making” 

Build your programmes on community engagement principles

To deliver real changes in water provision that truly reflect the needs of communities, every programme must be founded on Community Engagement principles, a planned and dynamic process that puts local communities and women at the centre of any responses. This process enhances ownership and connects communities with other key stakeholders to increase their control over resources and decision making, as well as the direction and impact of initiatives, leading to a more meaningful and sustainable future.

Approaches must be led and owned by women and local communities who are empowered, listened to, and understood. Without placing them at the heart of the response to water scarcity, it will fail.

It is not a question of if or when, we are in the midst of a water crisis in the Arab world right now. It’s time to act together using a transformative feminist approach to give the most vulnerable what they need to survive it.


Sally Abi Khalil

Sally Abi Khalil has been Oxfam International’s Regional Director in the Middle East and North Africa since July 2021, overseeing  development, aid and humanitarian programmes in the region. She previously led Oxfam’s country programme in Lebanon for four years.