Changing Planet

Critical Role of Women in World Water Issues Is Missing, Advocates Say

News from the 5th World Water Forum:

Finding water is usually the work of women and girls, according to Joke Muylwijk, executive director of the Gender Water Alliance, a network of more than a thousand people around the globe dedicated to equitable access to water resources and decision-making.

“There are some women who spend their whole lives looking for water,” Muylwijk said.

Gary White is executive director of WaterPartners, a nonprofit that aims to provide safe water and sanitation in developing countries.

According to White, 200 million hours are spent every day walking to collect water. “It is a huge opportunity cost for women who could be working paying jobs, or children who could be in school,” he added.

Muylwijk and White said women are generally absent in water decisions, but should play a critical role.

For example, Muylwijk said, the opening ceremony of the 5th World Water Forum was conducted by men only and out of 19 members on the forum steering committee there are no women.

At least in the developing world, women are generally more invested in water resources, and are more likely to carry an improvement project through to completion, White said.

Fadia Daibes, an independent consultant working on water resource management and policy in East Jerusalem, tells National Geographic more about the role, or lack of a role, women play in delicate Israeli-Palestinian water negotiations.

Video interview by Tasha Eichenseher

Meena Bilgi calls herself a gender advocate.

Based in Gujarat, India, Bilgi is employed by governments, nonprofits, and development agencies to advise on how and why to include women in water, agriculture, and health projects.

She said it may take years for men in rural communities, where she works, to accept women in official decision-making or managerial roles.

“Mainstreaming gender is a gradual process,” she said.

But, according to Bilgi, many development projects in India fail because they don’t include women, who are usually more familiar with the available natural resources because they are often the ones in the fields, grazing cattle in the forests, and fetching water.

Bilgi tells National Geographic more about her work and progress she and her colleagues have made.

Video interview by Tasha Eichenseher

Related National Geographic News story:

Water Deal Elemental to Middle East Peace

Earlier blog posts from the 5th World Water Forum:

Lack of Toilets “One of the Biggest Scandals in the Last 50 Years”

Nuggets of Hope in the Face of Bleak Outlook for Freshwater

Africa’s Water News: Green Beer, At-Risk Aquatic Life, Clean Hands


Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E,The Environmental MagazineEnvironmental Science & Technology online newsGreenwireGreen Guide, and National Geographic News.



Tasha Eichenseher’s attendance at the 5th World Water Forum is sponsored by Media21 — a Switzerland-based journalism foundation that brings reporters and producers from around the globe to work together on coverage of major issues such as human rights, climate change, and health.

[This post has been reformatted for Water Currents.]

Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E/The Environment Magazine, Environmental Science & Technology online news, Greenwire, Green Guide, and National Geographic News.
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