Women around the world are the custodians, gatherers, sterilisers and domestic managers of water.
“It's clean water, you know? I couldn't just give up and go home and take a bath and not think about where that water came from.”
These words were spoken by Eryn Wise, a 26-year-old member of the Jicarilla Apache and Laguna tribes and a protestor at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s sacred grounds to protect their water from the Dakota Access Pipeline development. Eryn and other women water protectors at Standing Rock are just few of many women fighting for water rights on our planet, cementing the very real and continuing link between women and water. Since it’s World Water Day today, it’s a good time to reflect on how important water is to women around the globe as well as here in Australia.
UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has spoken of the importance of water to women all around the world, ‘water is life and sanitation is dignity. And the dignity of women and girls is significantly affected when they do not have these basic services’. Each day, women and children around the globe spend 200 million hours collecting water. This is time they could be using on production, domestic chores and learning at school. If girls and women could spend that time bettering their economic, educational and social outcomes, the world could start looking much more equal.
Like Eryn and others, women in Australia have also had a history of fighting to protect our water resources. Melburnian Karen Alexander played a key role in bringing the protest to stop the Franklin River Dam Project in Tasmania to politicians in Canberra using a network of water campaigners. Karen said that her involvement was ‘built on the anger of the loss of Lake Pedder’, a pristine Tasmanian lake that was flooded by dam construction in 1972.
Clive Hamilton, author of What Do We Want? The Story of Protest in Australia said of the Franklin Dam protest, “many other women joined the blockade and action, ‘in stark contrast to the police officers, HEC workers and helicopter pilots, all of whom were male.’ For many it was the women’s movement in action.”
Karen’s role in the Franklin Dam protest led to a career dedicated to the environment in Australia. She was the co-founder of the Wilderness Society’s Victorian branch, worked at the UN Environment Program and was the Environment Manager at the Australian Conservation Foundation and has most recently worked for the Victorian National Parks Association. Karen was also the President of Australian Bush Heritage from 2000-2004. In 2015, Karen was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for ‘service to conservation and the environment, and to the community.’
It would come at little surprise to most readers that leadership and decision-making in water and environmental management and sustainability is dominated by men. Jane Elix and Judy Lambert from ANU have argued that the environmentalism movement in Australia ‘is in the second decade of the 21st century just as male dominated in its recognised leadership as it was in the late 1980s.’ This is mirrored worldwide, ‘women have traditionally been the primary custodians of collecting and managing domestic water, yet, they have been consistently excluded from entering the sector in a professional or technical capacity.’
In 2000, the Victorian Women’s Trust first started campaigning on water because we found through our vast engagement with the community during the Purple Sage Project that many women were concerned with Australia’s water resources sustainability. In 2007, a decade ago, inspired by the Purple Sage community conversations and the work of Maude Barlow, the Trust published Our Watermark. Trust Director Mary Crooks AO talked about why she saw water and feminism as interlinked:
“We felt that feminism was about opening up the big policy issues of the day so women can enter that domain and be a part of the debate. And we figured that women knew a lot about life and sustaining life and for them to be locked out of water debates, was no longer valid. We knew through our dialogue process, the Kitchen table process, that discussion is a method of leadership that suits women and their preferred ethic is collaboration. So what Our Watermark did was shine a light on the capacity of women to take leadership action on water and water debates.”
The 2009 Final Report of the State Parliamentary Committee inquiring into sustainable water use for Melbourne adopted the definition of water efficiency as advocated by Our Watermark:
“Real water efficiency is reached when we significantly reduce the volumes of potable water and when we use all available water (rainwater, storm-water, treated waste water) again, and again, before we finally discharge it.”
Being actively involved in improving our water efficiency continues to be crucial. Our Watermark included steps that individuals can take to achieve what we called “super water efficiency”. Melbourne Water is a great contemporary resource on how to save and reuse water. You can download their “Great ideas on how to save water” factsheet here.
Happy World Water Day, let’s continue to fight to protect our most precious resource!
Casimira Melican is the lead policy researcher at the Victorian Women’s Trust and a regular contributor to the VWT blog. She has co-written submissions to the Victorian and Federal Governments on diverse topics such as women’s superannuation, paid parental leave and women’s leadership. On weekends, she can be found cooking feasts for the whole family and instigating unmissable d-floor action to all your pop favourites.