01 May 2013

Women and hydropower - should there be gender specific consideration in water resources development?

I have a colleague who is working to put together a workshop to discuss women's role in hydropower. This idea is related to gender dynamics in development projects. I started scratching my head: have I seen anything this year, in my research, that speaks to gender differences either alleviated or exacerbated by hydropower development?

First of all, there are not many women involved in these projects at the national level. Whether this is just a factor of how many women studied engineering in the countries I have worked in or the role of women, in general, in society is unknown. I was told in Ethiopia that women now outnumber men in the engineering schools. So, perhaps in the future this will change. There are not many women present at the dam sites with jobs directly related to construction or design, though I did meet a handful of women hired from abroad and from Ethiopia working at Gibe III. One Ethiopian woman I spoke with who has an official role at Gibe III is a powerhouse and has been a pioneer in her work of surveying and dam development.

Plenty of women were present at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in roles related to cooking and cleaning. I think I was told that there were about 500 women employed on site in these roles out of the 8000 employees. And there were the wives of the internationals. I didn't actually spend too  much time at the Xayaburi camp to know if this is the same there. I met one Lao woman working in the PR arm of Xayaburi. I did meet quite a few women merchants in both dam sites selling goods to the project people, whether in their own shops, or on a one-to-one basis - food mostly. Any dam site, historic or present day, has its share of prostitutes. For women, as well as for men, this activity could present a real problem in the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

What is the dam relevance to women on the ground, in the local communities? This may be a more interesting question. We can estimate that women and men get similar benefits from development projects going into their otherwise remote communities. Access to markets, health care facilities, schools for their kids, water supply, electricity. Women, in general one may argue, need a doctor more often then men. Why? Birthing. This is one thing. Women are typically more engaged in markets than men - buying and selling seems to be more predominantly occupied by women - just empirical observation. Women, I am told, handle the compensation money more responsibly. When men receive these big chunks of compensation they may not necessarily spend it to better their existing families. In one dam in Ethiopia, men used the money to acquire a new wife. I have heard people say also that men tend to drink the money. More successful compensation packages, I am told, are when the money is given gradually and to the woman of the household so it is spent on education, clothing, food. I have no evidence for this. This is based on hearsay.

But consider what a woman in a remote undeveloped village does with her day. She hauls water. This a woman may do up to 3 times in one day, dependent on the size of her family. She deals with the family garden/farm - harvesting or planting or weeding, depending on the season. She makes the food. She minds the children. She pans for gold. She chops wood. She washes clothes. She cleans. She harvests material to make things. She then makes handicrafts, like baskets for hauling.

How could this change with the advent of development in her village? Perhaps her time spent hauling water is now reduced because there is a community tap - or even a tap in the house. Maybe she can buy a washing machine. She can sell her excess food in the market and buy useful things, like a basket. The things she can buy may be of better quality. Perhaps she can buy salt as to make meat and fish last longer, spending less time preparing the food in the long run. She now has access to a doctor in the case that she wants to give birth in a hospital instead of the house or the bush. If something goes wrong during the birthing process, she can more readily get to a health facility. Maybe she even has access to family planning information and/or birth control. Can you imagine giving birth to 12 or so kids? It does things to your body, for sure. Maybe her children gaining an education will enable them to take better financial care of her when she is old. I think it is true in every culture that women outlast men by years in old age. But maybe also she loses her income source from gold panning. Perhaps she has to spend more time on farming because she can no longer do this in the riverbed, now she needs irrigation and fertilizers. Maybe she has more hours working in general because her children now attend school. There are some drawbacks.

What I think about woman and hydropower is that there could be benefits to their lives through access to useful things to make their lives easier, longer and better quality of life through access to healthcare, and more time for themselves to do other things. This development can also expose women to new opportunities - and an increase of lifestyle and livelihood choice. Does this make sense?

These ideas are not complete. But I wonder if anyone is working on this question of gender and hydroprojects?