Science - June 8, 2006

Irrigation is not a man’s business

Much has gone wrong in irrigation projects because not enough attention is paid to the fact that women are the water users. Irrigation is a man’s world and women often remain invisible to the engineers. Feminists have largely written off irrigation as a way to change gender relations, but Dr Margreet Zwarteveen devised a new feminist approach that might be useful for irrigation engineers.

Generally speaking, irrigation engineers as well as managers and researchers of irrigation systems are men, and the world in which they think and work is a tough culture of men who are not afraid to get their feet dirty and who prefer a rational approach to matters. Irrigation engineers and managers identify with men and take it for granted that farmers are male. When new irrigation systems are designed, water rights and irrigated land are therefore nearly always allotted to men, even when it is often the women who work the fields. Irrigation engineers do not regard activities carried out by women, including agriculture, as part of an irrigation system. In other words, if an activity is not male, as far as the engineers are concerned, it does not come under the category irrigation.

Not taking gender into account in the design and management of irrigation systems is often the cause of failures. As a result, for example, water requirements are only calculated for fields allotted to men, and water requirements for vegetable patches near houses, and for drinking and washing, are not taken into account. These are all activities for which women use irrigation water.

Since the 1980s there have been feminist studies of failures in irrigation systems due to gender blindness, but they have not resulted in solutions. They reject irrigation as a means of achieving more equal male-female relations, because they regard irrigation as intrinsically male, or because they see irrigation as part of a larger male-dominated system. According to the well-known Indian eco-feminist Vandana Shiva for example, irrigation is dominated by a male paradigm that exploits women and nature. Zwarteveen does not regard this as a solution, however: the fact remains that female farmers work in irrigation systems. In her PhD research, Zwarteveen sought a new feminist approach that would make women visible, that would result in design, management and study of irrigation that takes women into account.

Zwarteveen did case studies in Burkina Faso, Nepal and the Andes. In Burkina she noticed that labour is used more efficiently if women themselves have fields. In addition, women are more willing to work in irrigated agriculture if they have control over the harvest. Zwarteveen concludes that households are not the harmonious units that irrigation engineers imagine them to be. If men are allotted new irrigated fields the profit from these does not necessarily reach the women. But liberal feminists, who argue that farmers must be seen as individuals, haven’t got it right either in Zwarteveen’s opinion. That is why the recent about-turn of institutes like the World Bank, which now consistently refer to African farmers as ‘she’, does not help matters either. ‘Unlike in the West, African women are not particularly interested in autonomy,’ says Zwarteveen. ‘They want to survive as a family and as a community, and this includes the web of culturally determined labour relations and property relations within which mutual dependencies are negotiated. An individualist approach ignores these factors.’

Social relations
The system that Zwarteveen examined in Nepal was a different case. It was built and is managed by the users, and it works well. Researchers came from near and far to discover the secret of its success and concluded that this is due to the participation of users in the decision-making process concerning the system. But, noted Zwarteveen, there were again no women among the users and they were not present in the water users’ organisations. Shouldn’t they be part of these? ‘That’s a good question,’ says Zwarteveen. ‘Because, even if they are part of the organisation, maybe they still would not have much to say. Women do have influence and acquire irrigation water in other ways, however. It turned out that women got water cheaper than men because they were on good terms with the water distributor. Conclusion: there are apparently different forms of power, not just the formal one.’

In a new feminist vision on irrigation, sums up Zwarteveen, we need to reconsider what belongs to the irrigation domain and what not. ‘Female’ matters such as tilling, drinking water and washing water must also be included in the irrigation research arena. Even more important is that people should no longer be approached in the ‘male’ way, as rationally behaving individuals whose irrigation behaviour depends on the irrigation system and the water users’ organisation, but rather as people who are situated within social relations. Finally, a feminist vision raises questions about the so-called ‘objective’ approach of irrigation engineers. ‘As a result of this objectivity, the researcher becomes invisible, while the male irrigation expert usually identifies with the formal power holders, with the managers and the bureaucrats. Irrigation engineers need to recognise that they work from a particular perspective and make choices in who they do and do not want to help.’

Joris Tielens

Dr Margreet Zwarteveen received her PhD on Tuesday 6 June. Her promotor was Professor Linden Vincent, chair of Irrigation and Water Engineering.