The primary caretakers of water?

Women have always had an important role in water management. A study in South Sikkim aims to find out if topography, in addition to gender, influences access to water.
The women of Sikkim manage their water resources
The women of Sikkim manage their water resources

Gender influences access to water to a high degree throughout the world, a fact recognised in the Dublin Principles but how does topography influence this access? This study detailed in this post aims to find the answer to this question.

The study draws upon unstructured interviews that focused on access to water for domestic purposes. These interviews were conducted in two villages of South Sikkim, primarily with the ethnic groups of Rais, Mangars, Lepchas and Bhutias with a few families that belonged to scheduled castes and followed Hindu and Buddhist reigions. The villagers were interviewed with respect to access to water for drinking and domestic purposes. Analysis of these interviews keeping in view the existing debates with respect to the role of women in water access focused on the following areas:

  • Collection of water
  • Use and management
  • Role in policy decisions

Collection of water: Largely due to the difficulty of carrying loads in mountainous terrains, collection of water in these villages was not done by women alone, since it was considered more efficient for a man to carry the loads. However, school children were often given the responsibility of stocking up on water.

Use and management:  Since all the villagers have a role in the collection of water, its efficient use and management is part of the community knowledge and does not rest with a particular group of individuals.

Role in policy decisions: Women have been actively participating to ensure the  sustainability of traditional sources, especially through the observance of festivals such as Sansari Puja, Indra Puja, where water sources are worshipped. This keeps intact the 'sacred' nature of these sources, and so protects them. However states, including panchayat and district level bodies, exclude women, largely because their representation in these bodies is limited and often non-formal.

Conclusion: Women retained high levels of responsibility over their water sources. However, where modern technology is introduced by the state, it is important to ensure that they continue to be included in learning how to manage the supply systems. With increased migration of men from mountain villages, women become primary caretakers. Policy needs to recognise this.

This post presents a paper received for the Sustainable Mountain Development Summit-III held at Kohima, Nagaland, from September 25-27, 2013. You can download the full paper below.