There is no climate justice without water justice – and that must include fair water access for women

Nuzhat Nueary Climate Change, Gender, Water

Nuzhat Nueary sets out five dimensions of fair and feminist water action.

A woman collecting water at an island in Bangladesh. Women in developing countries typically walk 6km a day to collect water (picture: Jahangir Alam/Oxfam in Bangladesh)

Imagine a village in the Barind region of Bangladesh, severely impacted by climate change, which has led to water scarcity as groundwater is depleted and even deep tube wells no longer work. Now, imagine a woman from that village who needs water: she must now walk much further to access safe drinking water (women and girls in developing countries already typically walk 6 kilometres a day to fetch water). And lack of water is bad for the crops she is farming, cutting the amount of food she can grow. Meanwhile, the heat stress as temperatures rise is also making her farming work much more difficult.

This single example shows well how the climate crisis is not just leading to a water crisis but to a water crisis with gendered impacts: after all it is typically women who must now walk further to collect water. Addressing this gendered crisis and protecting people’s rights must therefore be at the heart of climate action: there can be no climate justice without feminist water justice, as Oxfam’s recent Water Dilemmas report spells out.

It was good to see a dedicated space for discussions about water at the recent COP28 but in climate action, water’s essential role has too often been often overlooked. Importantly we need to ensure that our climate response has at its heart a feminist approach to water. Here are five key elements of fair and feminist water action.

1. Challenge unequal access to clean water

In too many developing countries, people struggle to obtain a basic water supply. In the Middle East and North Africa region, 83% of the population is exposed to extremely high-water stress, while in South Asia, 74% are. Yet, amid water insecurity in so many places, developed countries consume vast amounts of water. Switzerland, for instance has a per-capita water footprint of 4,200 litres per day. And a staggering 82% of that water use occurs outside its borders, including in the water-intensive production of things such as coffee and cocoa, imported from water-scarce regions such as Ethiopia and Ghana. The production of such water-intensive crops for export further exacerbates water scarcity and the stark water inequity between nations.

Instead we need to put justice and equity at the heart of water management, promoting sustainable water use that meets the needs of all people, regardless of where they live.

2. Protect water access in times of conflict

The human right to water must be protected everywhere and, in all contexts, including armed conflicts. We cannot achieve water and climate justice unless we stand in solidarity with the people in conflict zones who see their right to water threatened. International conventions make clear there is a human right to water that is “sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable”. Specifically, the Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure sets out international rules that must be applied to water access in armed conflicts (see also, H. Hussein Nature 603, 793; 2022).

Yet we see all too often water access, is one of the first casualties of conflict, something horribly evident in Gaza today.

3. Promote regional cooperation to manage rivers that cross national borders

Take the example of the Hindu Kush Himalayan mountain region which provides water to many Asian countries, with over two billion people relying on its rivers for their water. Regional cooperation is crucial to incorporate all the voices and concerns around such “transboundary” river management.

The need for such cooperation is made even more urgent by climate change: this is causing glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalayas to melt at unprecedented rates, which increases the risk of floods. A recent flood of this type in Sikkim, India, killed over 90 people and cut off the state capital as roads and bridges collapsed. That incident is a stark reminder of the urgent need for regional cooperation. Additionally, it is vital to ensure that the water needs of communities downstream are met, even during water scarcity. That means water cooperation must include these downstream communities as stakeholders.

4. Listen to and include missing voices

Climate change disproportionately affects women and marginalised groups, yet they are often excluded from decision-making processes about water management. Only by hearing their voices can we understand and address their water needs, to deliver safe and clean water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities for everyone. To do this, it’s vital to empower leaders from key groups, such as women, youth, and Indigenous communities. In Lebanon, for example, women are taking the lead in maintaining water and sanitation facilities and are involved in decision-making processes. This approach has been critical to the success and sustainability of water management there.

5. Involve a much wider range of stakeholders

Getting everyone on board with a fair and feminist water system is essential, and the responsibility of delivering clean water shouldn’t just fall on the shoulders of communities, government and policymakers; in fact it should involve many players: from civil society to businesses, everyone has a vital role to play.

Look at Costa Rica: they’ve got a system where local communities, businesses, and the government all play a part in managing water resources. This participatory approach ensures that decisions are fair and just, benefiting everyone involved. The result is a shining example of water governance.

A feminist approach to water justice: the missing piece in climate action?

Water action has too often been like a missing piece in the picture of climate action, leaving communities’ water needs neglected. We need to put water right at the top of the climate agenda and make clear that the climate crisis is also a water crisis. That means more discussions on funding that continue the good work at COP28 by paying specific attention to solving water-related challenges. There can be no climate justice without water justice and without a fair deal for the world’s women on water access.

Author

Nuzhat Nueary

Nuzhat Nueary is Water Insecurity and Climate Policy Coordinator at Oxfam International

Find out more about water justice in this briefing paper by Padmini Iyer: Water Dilemmas: The cascading impacts of water insecurity in a heating world.