Women’s Roles in Managing Wetlands

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Jassim Alasadi, Nature Iraq
Ma’dan women navigate the Iraqi marshes to gather reeds, which they use in crafts and to construct their homes.

In Brief

Although wetlands supply all of our freshwater, scientific studies show that 64 percent of these vital natural ecosystems have disappeared since 1900. The mission of the Ramsar Convention is the conservation and wise use of all wetlands throughout the world, and its Strategic Plan (2016–2024) recognizes the direct relevance of these ecosystems to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, including Goal 5 on Gender Equality and Goal 6 on Water, among others.  Since in many regions water is collected and managed largely by women, their empowerment is a requirement for effective wetland and water management. Based on case studies from Ramsar sites in Burkina Faso, Greece, and Iraq, five principles are proposed for enhancing women’s participation in wetland and water management. These principles are 1. Recognizing women’s central role in providing, managing, and safeguarding wetland and water resources; 2. Actively supporting women’s full participation in the governance of these resources at all levels; 3. Mainstreaming gender issues across wetland, water, and cross-sectoral policies and plans; 4. Valuing the economic, cultural, and social benefits of women’s wetland-based livelihoods; and, 5. Ensuring that solutions to enhance gender equality are adapted to local cultural contexts.


Key Concepts

  • Wetlands supply all of our freshwater, account for one billion livelihoods, provide much of our food security, and store 30 percent of the world’s land-locked carbon. Yet, scientific studies show that 64 percent of these vital natural ecosystems have disappeared since 1900.

  • Women play a central role in providing, managing, and safeguarding wetland and water resources across the world. Globally, 2.5 percent of the world’s water is freshwater, of which only 0.3 percent is surface water. Every person requires 20 to 50 liters of water per day for basic drinking, cooking, and cleaning. In many regions, this water is collected and managed largely by women.

  • The mission of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is the conservation and wise use of all wetlands throughout the world, and its Strategic Plan (2016–2024) recognizes the direct relevance of these ecosystems to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, including Goal 5 on Gender Equality and Goal 6 on Water.

  • Some key principles for enhancing women’s participation in wetland and water management include recognizing women’s central role in providing, managing, and safeguarding these vital resources, actively supporting women’s full participation in their governance, and mainstreaming gender issues across wetland, water, and cross-sectoral policies and plans.

Across the world, women play a central role in providing, managing, and safeguarding wetland and water resources.

The purpose of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is to support the conservation and wise use of these extraordinary natural areas. Case studies featuring women from Ramsar Sites in Burkina Faso, Greece, and Iraq can be used to explore best practices. From these case studies, five principals have been developed to help identify solutions to enhance women’s participation in wetland and water management.

Wetlands, the Ramsar Convention, and Gender Equality

Wetlands are vital natural ecosystems and include such iconic areas as the Everglades (USA), the Sundarbans (India/Bangladesh), and the Okavango Delta (Botswana). Their official definition under the Ramsar Convention is, “areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres.”1 Hence, wetlands include all rivers, lakes, swamps, and estuaries, as well as coastal zones and range in size from less than a single hectare to the massive Pantanal (Brazil/Bolivia/Paraguay), which covers an area of 15 million hectares.

Although wetlands supply all of our freshwater, scientific studies show that 64 percent of these crucial ecosystems have disappeared since 1900.2 Today, these natural ecosystems provide livelihoods for over one billion people, as well as services vital for life such as food (especially fish and rice production), freshwater, and climate change mitigation and adaptation. Wetlands also store over 30 percent of all land-locked carbon, which is twice the amount contained in all of the world’s forests.3

Wetlands are clearly essential for our survival, as well as that of a multitude of plant and animal species. So why have we lost such a large percentage of the world’s wetland areas?  Over time, most wetlands have been drained and cultivated for intensive food production and others reclaimed to extend urban areas and infrastructure. The immense benefits and services provided by wetlands have not been fully recognized.

The mission of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is the conservation and wise use of all wetlands throughout the world and includes raising awareness of their immense economic, social, and environmental value. Since its adoption in 1971, over 2,240 Ramsar sites have been designated as wetlands of international importance, altogether covering over 215 million hectares.4 The Convention is currently recognized by 169 governments who commit to the following:

  • Working towards the wise use of all their wetlands;
  • Designating suitable wetlands for the list of Wetlands of International Importance (the “Ramsar List”) and ensuring their effective management; and,
  • Cooperating internationally on transboundary wetlands, shared wetland systems, and shared species.5

With respect to gender equality, the Convention’s Strategic Plan (2016–2024) recognizes the direct relevance of wetlands to the achievement of all the Sustainable Development Goals, including Goal 5 on Gender Equality and Goal 6 on Water.6  One of the Convention’s resolutions on culture also includes a principle to “take into account culturally appropriate treatment of gender, age and social role issues” in the management of wetlands (Ramsar Resolution VIII.19 on the cultural values of wetlands).7 The Convention’s Strategic Plan and many of its resolutions on communities, Indigenous peoples, and culture further support global objectives linked to women and gender equality, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Target 14 on preserving and restoring ecosystems, “taking account of the needs of women, Indigenous and local communities, the poor and vulnerable.”8

The Link between Women and Wetlands

UN Photo/John Isaac
Women in Burkina Faso during the dry seasons prepare the ground for crops by pounding and terracing it to control erosion and catch the rainwater when it comes.

Only 2.5 percent of the world’s water is freshwater, of which only 0.3 percent is surface water.  Every person requires 20 to 50 liters of water a day for basic drinking, cooking, and cleaning.3 In many regions, this water is collected and managed largely by women.9

The role of women is recognized in the principles of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). Based on the Dublin Principles presented at the World Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, IWRM is a process that promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land, and related resources in order to maximize economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems. The third principle of IWRM emphasizes that, “women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water.”10

Given their close link with water, women are often highly aware of the importance of wetlands and water to livelihoods. The degradation and loss of wetlands also has gender differentiated impacts, for example, on the availability of water for household and agricultural use.

As indicated by this year’s theme for International Women’s Day, “Planet 50–50 by 2030: Step it up for Gender Equality,” momentum is building to accelerate the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development and the effective implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, including Goal 5 on Women and Goal 6 on Water.11

Goal 5 on Gender Equality calls for ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls everywhere, and ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership. Goal 6 is focused on water supply and sanitation, IWRM, and protecting and restoring water-related ecosystems, such as wetlands.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that these two goals on women and water are listed together. Fully empowering women is a prerequisite for truly sustainable development, and it is likewise a requirement for effective wetland and water management.

The following three case studies from Ramsar sites in Burkina Faso, Greece, and Iraq illustrate the great diversity of ways in which women contribute to wetland and water resource management.

Burkina Faso

In Burkina Faso’s Central North region, the establishment of women-inclusive Local Water Committees in 2013 has led to significant improvements in local water governance as a direct result of women’s participation.

The Burkina Faso national gender policy of 2009 highlights important gender inequalities in the access to, supply, and management of drinking water. Water is mainly provided by women and girls who devote large amounts of time to its collection, often to the detriment of other productive and capacity-building activities, such as education.

The leadership of women in the newly established Local Water Committees has helped ensure that women’s voices are heard and that their specific problems and needs in relation to water collection and management are addressed. Their dynamism has also contributed to the creation of a new Local Water Charter, a locally enacted regulation for the management of the Lake Dem Ramsar Site, which ensures equitable and sustainable access to the lake’s water resources for all.

The Committees, supported by the Consolidation of Local Environmental Governance project funded by the Austrian Development Agency, have also been instrumental in establishing three new Ramsar Sites as protected water sources: Tougouri Dam Lake, Yalgo Dam Lake, and Nakanbé-Mané basin. These women-inclusive Committees are a critical link in the governance of local water resources and wetlands, and illustrate the application of the principles of IWRM, particularly that “the role of women in collecting, distributing and managing water must be recognized.”

Northern Greece

In the wetland landscapes of northern Greece, women play a central management role. In fact, the majority of patrolling wardens tasked with protecting the Lesser White-fronted Goose in the Kerkini Lake and Evros Delta Ramsar Sites are women. These geese are one of the most threatened bird species in Europe. Key threats to this bird, of which only about 20 breeding pairs survive in Europe, include hunting and accidental shooting.

LHG Creative Photography
A Lesser White-fronted Goose bathes its feathers.

The Lesser White-fronted Goose breeds in Scandinavia and migrates to Greece for the winter. The Hellenic Ornithological Society (BirdLife Greece), a local nongovernmental organization, coordinates an ambitious multinational and multi-institutional conservation project spanning the bird’s entire range, which is funded by the European Commission with co-financing from the Norwegian Environment Agency. When this project was first put into place, more women than men applied for the patrolling warden posts, resulting in an unexpected majority of women patrollers in what is generally a male-dominated role.

In Greece, illegal hunting coincides with the winter hunting season. Patrolling takes place in remote areas in the middle of the night, often in freezing temperatures. As hunting is generally a male occupation, there were concerns about how female patrollers would deal with men who were carrying rifles and how they would collaborate with the mostly male Forest Service guard teams with whom they would be working.

The Hellenic Ornithological Society’s experience so far has shown that men are actually less inclined to aggression when stopped by women performing checks and that a diplomatic yet assertive approach by women can be an asset in managing teams of guards consisting mostly of men. Their conclusion has been that a combination of women and men working together can help make patrolling more effective and safer for all of those involved.

Iraq

The women of the Ma’dan people in the Mesopotamian Marshes are custodians of wetland-based livelihoods and crafts that date back more than 5,000 years to Sumerian times. These marshes, also referred to as the “Garden of Eden,” or the “Cradle of Civilization,” were once entirely populated by the Ma’dan, who constructed floating islands and reed houses in the marshes, developing wetland villages built in the reeds and linked by a network of channels.

The Mesopotamian Marshes, which are designated as three separate Ramsar Sites, are located in southern Iraq and partially in Iran and Kuwait. At one time, they were the largest wetlands in Western Eurasia, but prior to 2003 had been drained and reduced to 10 percent of their original size. Over the last 13 years, some dykes have been removed and the marsh areas reflooded, allowing the Marsh Arabs to return to live there. In these parts, the wetlands have recovered to some extent but are still faced with serious conservation issues.

The Ma’dan people’s lives and livelihoods are intrinsically linked to the marshes and in particular to the reeds that are used in constructing their homes and crafts. The women harvest reeds from deep within the marshes and transport them by boats propelled with poles. With the reeds, they weave mats of various sizes known as Albariya. The women also often participate in building the distinctive reed houses, considered masterpieces of architectural heritage. In addition, the reed mats are used in making fences, livestock sheds, and floor coverings.

Hand-made clay ovens are used to bake bread and cook fish, in the same manner as they have been since Sumerian times. The clay and other component materials such as papyrus are sourced from the wetlands. Many of these sustainable crafts and traditions have a direct historical link to a very ancient Mesopotamian culture and the ever-present marsh environment. It is in large part thanks to the custodial role of women in Southern Mesopotamia that these extraordinary cultural practices remain an enduring part of life there today.

Final Thoughts

Jenny Downing
A woman in Indonesia works in wetlands.

The very first line of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands recognizes the interdependence of people and the environment. Understanding the links between the cohesion of human societies and the integrity of water environments, including the specific roles of women, is fundamental to achieving the Convention’s mission of contributing to sustainable development throughout the world.

Today, over two decades after the adoption by the international community of the 1992 Dublin Principles on Water and Sustainable Development, which emphasized the “pivotal role of women as providers and users of water and guardians of the living environment,” gender is included in many positive policies addressing women’s specific needs and empowering them to participate in the management of wetlands and water.12

Nonetheless, despite significant progress there is still a long way to go before the hundreds of millions of women who are involved in the day-to-day management and use of wetlands and water resources are fully empowered.

The above examples from Burkina Faso, Greece, and Iraq illustrate the pivotal roles that women can play as guardians of wetland and water resources. The nature of these roles is heavily dependent on local social, political, economic, and environmental conditions. Therefore, what works to empower women in Burkina Faso will not necessarily work in Greece or Iraq, and vice-versa.

However, we can extract some universal principles from these case studies that we hope will be helpful to all stakeholders in identifying solutions to enhance women’s participation in wetland and water resource management:

  • Recognition: women’s central role in the provision, management, and safeguarding of wetland and water resources is recognized by all stakeholders.
  • Full participation: women’s full participation in wetland and water governance structures is actively supported at all levels, including their participation in leadership roles.
  • Mainstreaming gender issues: gender issues are systematically and adequately included in wetland, water, and cross-sectoral policies and plans in order to contribute to the implementation by 2030 of Sustainable Development Goal 5 on Gender Equality and Goal 6 on Water.
  • Valuing economic, social, and cultural benefits: the economic, social, and cultural value of women’s wetland-based livelihoods are formally recognized, and investment by governments in wetland conservation and restoration is adequate to maintain the vital services that they provide for future generations, such as freshwater.
  • Adapting solutions to local contexts: a good understanding of the local cultural context, and the specific roles of women therein, is crucial to identify and successfully implement appropriate solutions to enhance women’s participation in wetland and water management.

Ultimately, the effective governance of all natural resources, including wetlands and water, requires women and men working together. We hope that these case studies provide inspiration to the many women and men involved in wetland conservation and wise use around the world to join together and “Step it up for Gender Equality.”

Acknowledgements

We would like to warmly thank our many colleagues who contributed case studies on women and wetlands, including Paul Ouédraogo (Senior Advisor for Africa, Ramsar Convention Secretariat), Bobodo Blaise Sawadogo (Coordinator of Consolidation of Local Environmental Governance project), Aïcha Tapsoba (Environmental Economist, INERA-DPF), Manolia Vougioukalou (Lesser White fronted Goose LIFE Project Manager, Hellenic Ornithological Society), and Jassim Alasadi (Nature Iraq)

References

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  2. Davidson, NC. How much wetland has the world lost? Long-term and recent trends in global wetland area. Marine and Freshwater Research 65: 934–940 (2014).
  3. Wetlands: why should I care? Ramsar Convention on Wetlands [online] (2016). http://www.ramsar.org/sites/default/files/documents/library/factsheet1_w....
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  5. Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands [online] (1971). http://www.ramsar.org/sites/default/files/documents/library/current_conv....
  6. The 4th Strategic Plan 2016 – 2024. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands [online] (2015). http://www.ramsar.org/sites/default/files/documents/library/4th_strategi....
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  8. Wetlands: water, life, and culture in 8th Meeting of the Conference of the Contracting Parties to the Convention on Wetlands. Resolution VIII.19 Guiding principles for taking into account the cultural values of wetlands for the effective management of sites. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands [online] (2002). http://www.ramsar.org/sites/default/files/documents/pdf/res/key_res_viii....
  9. Domestic Water Quantity, Service Level and Health. World Health Organization [online] (2003). http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/diseases/WSH03.02.pdf.
  10. IWRM Principles. Global Water Partnership [online] (2012). http://www.gwp.org/en/The-Challenge/What-is-IWRM/IWRM-Principles/.
  11. About Step It Up. UN Women [online] (2016). http://www.unwomen.org/en/get-involved/step-it-up/about.
  12. The Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development. UN Documents [online] (1992). http://www.un-documents.net/h2o-dub.htm.