Four ways women can help to end the Middle East’s water crisis

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

We know women have to be at the heart of designing and delivering the response to the region’s water problems, says Oxfam MENA’s Sally Abi Khalil. She sets out four principles for a fresh, feminist approach to managing water.

Suad Hassan collects and transports water in a jerry can, in Al Malika displaced persons camp in Yemen in 2020 (picture Pablo Tosco/Oxfam)

Women In the Middle East and North Africa are too often seen as simply water consumers or as water managers just of their own households. They are not given the voice and agency to control water at wider community or institutional levels. Far too often, they are prevented from negotiating access to water – then left to manage the burden of scarcity. 

Yet we know we must put women at the heart of water policy and interventions for these to be successful and meet the needs of all users.

In this blog, I look at four key principles of feminist water management that can deliver water equitably and effectively. As we confront a water crisis exacerbated by conflict in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, with 41 million people having no access to basic drinking water services, the need for a fresh, feminist approach to water management could not be more urgent.  

1. Nothing about us without us

“Nothing about us without us” is the principle that must be at the core of any feminist water agenda. That means going far beyond tokenistic female participation to deliver meaningful participation of women and empowering them in decision making.

In the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) women have formed a national coalition that negotiated with the Palestinian Water Authority to demand a gender-responsive strategy, as well as better representation of women. The Palestinian Women Water Practitioners Network now brings together women water professionals, rural women, and women working in social movements to support women’s active participation and shaping of water policy and management.

Initiatives such as this are proof that change can happen through building enabling environments for genuine participation where power is shared and privilege is acknowledged.

2. Accept nothing less than transformative change

Truly transformational change cannot be tokenistic. Transformation of women’s role and power will only come about through a multi-faceted approach with both structural and cultural reforms. Transformation must take into account intersectionality, and holistically link water governance to women’s voices, agency, and representation in leadership and decision-making processes.

Transformational change can happen, even in contexts where significant challenges to women’s participation exists.  In Yemen, for example,  where women struggle under Mahram policies (that mean they must always be accompanied by a male guardian in public) water systems are still being built. In fact, a feminist agenda in water governance mean designing strategies to overcome such local challenges, by advocating for women’s genuine participation in decision-making processes, and working to shift rigid social norms.

Again in Yemen, women have shown how to take transformative leadership on water and community conflict resolution. Women from all backgrounds formed the Pact and Women’s Solidarity Network coalitions. Working across political lines, these bodies have activated local truce committees that prevent fighting over water and land resources.

Such transformational change also demands attention to the unequal distribution of resources, developing and advocating for policies that deliver fairness not just for women and girls, but for young people, people living with disabilities, refugees, migrants, the LGBTQIA+ community, and future generations.

3. Innovation and technology must always be inclusive

With increasing water scarcity, drought and water degradation, new water innovations and affordable technologies have the potential to change the lives for women who are disproportionately affected by water shortages and lack of water quality.

Innovation will remove the burdens of labour and time spent collecting water that too often falls on the shoulders of women. Particularly in rural areas or those hit by conflict, innovation can improve health and be a powerful tool to deliver more equitable access.

But such technology must be accessible and not reinforce existing digital divides and inequities. Innovation must be understood, shared, distributed and address barriers specific to women as it is developed so it can benefit everyone. Planned and delivered properly, innovative technologies combined with feminist water governance practices can build more resilient and sustainable water systems in the MENA region that better adapt to climate change.

In one project in Lebanon, women are now essential to ensuring safe and clean water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities are accessible to everyone. Supported by Oxfam partner Nabab, women train in maintenance and repairs. They also gain a better understanding of how poorly maintained facilities affect families’ health. Ultimately, they take ownership and accountability for WASH practices and maintenance by becoming part of decision making. Focusing on women-led maintenance and rehabilitation of WASH facilities has been critical to the success and sustainability of the project.

4. Challenge existing power structures

Water is scarce globally, but especially in MENA.  In this region, water is controlled by influential men in local communities, oppressive national governments and powerful groups such as militant groups who control transborder resources. 

So adopting a feminist agenda on water will mean challenging these power structures within water sectors locally, nationally and globally.

Feminists in MENA shift power at the local level by challenging patriarchal social norms, and by providing role models who are influential and effective leaders.

At the national level, activists are proposing and advocating for policies, laws and regulations that are gender-transformative; demanding gender budgeting; fairer taxation; and better access to social protection. Feminist movements are also building cross-border alliances and coalitions that challenge authoritarian regimes and dictatorships through innovative ways of organising and expanding shrinking civic spaces, online and offline.

Feminists are also challenging non-state actors, including fundamentalist militant groups who are reinforcing rigid social norms and can use water resources as a weapon.  A feminist peace agenda recognises that without equitable management of resources that centralises people’s needs, there cannot be sustainable peace.

At the global level, feminists must challenge austerity measures, global governance structures and how decisions over transborder water, water flow, peace building and aid structures are made.

Women must be involved at every stage

Women’s voice, their collective actions, and real and tangible participation is our most powerful tool to challenge power and promote gender equitable access to this most important resource for our planet. Any pathway to inclusive and productive water use and governance, including WASH in humanitarian emergencies, must ensure women in all their diversity are at the table, from design to implementation.


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.