Lena Sommestad and Rejoice Mabudafhasi
describe how empowering women is vital for improving health and the environment through the provision of adequate water and sanitation.

Water is essential for all life. But even though it is precious to us, we do not always treat it as a precious resource. It is usually used and managed in a fragmented and unsustainable way: water scarcity and degradation frequently result. Our way of living has created a situation where freshwater resources are under tremendous pressure and more than 1 billion people lack acceptable water to drink.

Changing this situation, and creating a sustainable future for everyone, is a demanding and crucial task for us all. It is our responsibility – as politicians, water experts, representatives of public and private sectors, and citizens – to make concentrated efforts to reach the Millennium Declaration Goals related to water, the targets set in the Plan of Implementation from the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg and other internationally agreed targets on water.

Water issues played an important role at the World Summit in Johannesburg two years ago. An ambitious target was set: to halve the proportion of people without access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation by the year 2015. Another was set to develop national integrated water resources management and water efficiency plans by 2005.

We recognize water as a key factor for economic growth. Enhanced water and sanitation services represent a fundamental step towards improved livelihoods for poor people. A paradigm shift is needed towards sustainable sanitation systems if we are to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and the Johannesburg commitments on sanitation.

Holistic alternative
Ecological sanitation provides one such alternative. Based on an ecosystem approach, and not a specific technology, it offers a conceptual shift in the relationship between people and the environment. Ecological sanitation is holistic: it saves water, prevents water pollution, and sanitizes and recycles nutrients and organics to restore soil and soil fertility – and often at a much lower cost than conventional sanitation. Besides providing a basic service, it can contribute to improved health and food security and income-generating activities, especially if combined with rainwater harvesting.

Ecological sanitation cannot be scaled up unless it is socially and culturally acceptable. The needs and priorities of the people themselves must always be in focus in all water and sanitation interventions. The users should play a leading role in putting their ideas into practice. Involving households and communities in planning, implementing and maintaining services and the use of suitable technology is most important for achieving success, as are long-term ecological and financial sustainability.

It is important to acknowledge the gender dimension in such projects. There is no reason why women should not have the same benefits and opportunities as men. It is also vital that changes in roles and responsibilities do not mean that women have to take on additional duties and workload.

Indeed, there is an urgent need further to mainstream a gender perspective in all water resource management, not just in water supply and sanitation projects. This implies giving adequate consideration to both women’s and men’s roles, needs, access, responsibility, and control of land and water rights. Poor women and men, in particular, depend on the ecosystems of wetlands, coastal zones, etc., for their livelihoods. But women and men have different interests and needs in relation to different water and sanitation issues. In order to succeed, all these aspects must be taken into account.

Main responsibility
Women worldwide are directly affected by poverty and directly involved in the day-to-day work of putting food on the table and ensuring there is fresh water to drink. In many parts of the globe, they find themselves dividing their time between domestic duties, cultural activities and community projects. In some places, cultural norms restrict them from asserting themselves or taking the lead in development processes and programmes.

Women are generally the most affected by investments in sanitation since they often tend to take the main responsibility for domestic activities. The importance of involving them in decision making and in implementing development programmes – particularly in the areas of water, sanitation and human settlement – is now widely recognized. Crucially, it is easier to involve women in ecological sanitation projects as they place less emphasis on high technology solutions. The challenge, however, remains to define effective interventions that will enable and empower women to play a more direct role in development processes and decisions.

Unless we empower women, we will not be able to eradicate poverty – or fight poverty-related environmental degradation. International institutions and national and local governments need to enhance the role of women through legal provisions, institutional frameworks and incentives; through capacity development and empowerment; and through monitoring, information and evaluation.

We consider it fundamental to secure women’s rights to land tenure and water and to ensure adequate public sanitation facilities for women and girls. It is important to strengthen implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, including its call for measures to ensure women’s rights to adequate sanitation and water supply.

It is also necessary to enhance stakeholder consultation in policy making, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Equitable participation by women in decision making should be facilitated, both in local supply schemes and in resource allocation within catchment areas.

Power needs to be shifted from technocrats to end-users. Both men and women must be involved in determining technology options and service levels for sanitation and water services. The gender impacts of implementation must be monitored and evaluated. And men must be engaged in supporting the empowerment of women as water managers. We must unpack the different roles and relationships of men and women, so as to facilitate understanding of when and how these need to change.

Many challenges have to be addressed, especially over ecological sanitation. Implementing ecological sanitation solutions is not just a matter of the proper technology and knowledge: it is equally critical to recognize cultural, social and institutional dimensions.

As women ministers, we have taken it upon ourselves to cooperate across borders to promote relevant goals and targets. In 2002, a Network of Women Ministers of the Environment was established to exchange ideas and to work toward solutions to critical environmental issues. Some 30 women ministers from all continents participate in its work to promote excellence in environmental governance and develop recommendations for practical solutions to environmental problems confronting nations and the world.

Equal participation of women in decision making will make it much easier to fight poverty-related poor health and environmental degradation. By empowering women, it will become possible to eradicate poverty. We should be content with nothing less

Lena Sommestad is Minister for the Environment, Sweden, and Rejoice Mabudafhasi is Deputy Minister for Environmental Affairs and Tourism, South Africa. They are co-chairs of the Network of Women Ministers of the Environment.

PHOTOGRAPH: Pooja Thakur/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Miles to go before we relax | Practical consensus | Power shift | Equally effective | People | Peace of mind, piece of land | The young ones | Fuelling change | At a glance: Women, health and the environment | Aishwarya Rai | Unprecedented opportunity | Books and products | Chemical inheritance | Toxic trespass | First empower | Citizen engagement | Adding feminine perspective | After all ‘nature’ is female... | A unique voice

Complementary issues:
Culture, values and the environment 1996
Water 1996
Fresh Water 1998
Poverty, Health and the Environment 2001
World Summit on Sustainable Development 2002
Freshwater 2003
Water, Sanitation, People 2004

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and natural resources
Population, waste and chemicals