News / 22 March 2021

The importance of a gender perspective in Dutch water policies

An increasing number of stakeholders in the Dutch water sector are acknowledging the importance of an inclusive approach to climate adaptation. However, where our knowledge institutes and companies are involved in delta plans and master plans, as in Bangladesh and the Philippines, this approach is proving difficult to apply in practice. Taking local realities, vulnerabilities and inequalities – such as those between men and women – as a starting point is essential for good plans that give everyone the opportunity to adapt to climate change.

Now climate change is having an even bigger and stronger impact in many parts of the world, people's knowledge and capacity to adapt to that impact is crucial. Those possibilities often depend, however, on factors like people's social, economic and political status within a society.

Women are often extra vulnerable. While they play a crucial role in using and managing water, protecting the environment and coming up with smart solutions to adapt to climate change, restrictive gender roles and social norms often mean they have no access to decision-making, capital, technology or information. Formal control over natural resources, including land titles and free and safe access to water, is often in the hands of men. And women are frequently weakly represented (or not at all) in politics and in decision-making processes at all levels. This not only deprives them of their rights, but also means that crucial knowledge and innovative solutions for sustainable water management and climate adaptation are lost.

Gender-related inequalities are deeply embedded in political and economic systems and inclusiveness thus calls for a proactive attitude and patience. Changes in this area often encounter resistance: actively safeguarding the rights and knowledge of those with less access to power can directly conflict with established interests.

Inclusive water policy

Stakeholders in the Dutch water sector acknowledge the importance of an inclusive approach to climate adaptation. 'Communities of Practice' have been set up to promote such an approach. And that is good news, as Dutch companies and knowledge institutes are keen to use their knowledge and experience to support other countries' plans for water-related climate adaptation. Master plans and delta plans are being drawn up around the world with Dutch support.

The Bangladesh Delta Plan

In Bangladesh, for example, a Bangladesh Delta Plan (BDP2100) has been drawn up with the support of stakeholders from the Dutch water sector. Located on a low-lying delta, Bangladesh very vulnerable to climate change. Especially in the southwestern coastal region, which is suffering extreme weather conditions and rising sea levels, climate change is exacerbating the already difficult circumstances in which people live, partly caused by inadequate water management. These additional risks are causing more work and creating unhygienic living conditions, for women in particular, who are largely responsible for providing water and food for their families and communities.

Youth committees call for local methods to be used in Tidal River Management

The inhabitants of the southwestern coastal region can no longer wait for working solutions and have increased the pressure on the authorities. Young women have organised themselves in Youth Water Committees and are calling for a climate-proof future. With support from our partner organisation Uttaran, they have brought Tidal River Management (TRM) – inspired by traditional water management methods – to the attention of the developers of the BDP2100.

Unfortunately, participation by local civil society in the development of the BDP2100 was very limited. While the plan does refer to TLM as a potential intervention in the southwest, crucial recommendations by civil society on gender equality and restoration of ecosystems have not been integrated. Partly due to the consistent effort by Uttaran and the local committees, government officials have recently acknowledged in the media that "TRM is the only way to protect the southwestern coastal region from extreme weather and the rising seal level". Dutch water institute Deltares also recognises the importance of TRM for Bangladesh and this year, together with Uttaran and Both ENDS, is exploring how best to implement it.

So the first steps have been taken. It is now up to the government of Bangladesh, at all levels from local to national, to design, implement and monitor an inclusive process to facilitate TRM. The knowledge, experience and ambitions of young women in particular should be at the centre of these efforts, and the knowledge of communities and research institutes should also be incorporated so that TRM can be applied as a smart ecosystem approach. Financial investments are also required, even though implementing TRM costs a great deal less than infrastructure only, such as dykes and locks. And these investments will quickly be recovered, as they will make a climate-proof and healthy future for millions of people possible – which will allow the local economy to flourish once again.

Manila Bay

In Manila Bay in the Philippines, the situation is less hopeful. As in Bangladesh, this region and its inhabitants are very vulnerable to climate change. Typhoons and floods are increasing in number and severity. The local fishing communities in the bay, who live immediately on the coast or on the water in houses on poles, are among the most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. Women in particular are vulnerable: through gender role patterns, women usually work harder to ensure that their families have enough to eat and to run their households. Every natural disaster makes their already difficult package of tasks even harder. Research shows that the mental stress also leads to increased sexual violence against women.

In response to the increasingly extreme weather conditions, Dutch and Philippine partners joined forces and, at the beginning of 2018, instigated the Manila Bay Sustainable Development Master Plan (MBSDMP) process, which will be completed in April of this year. The aim of the process is to improve water management and coastal defences. During the development of the plan, however, little account was taken of the real-life circumstances of the local fishing communities and no human rights or gender inequality impact assessments were carried out. As the MBSDMP will be the framework for development in the area until 2040, the lack of these analyses is expected to result in choices that will only marginalise women and vulnerable groups even further.

In 2019, in response to the shortcomings of the master plan, the Kalikasan-People's Network for the Environment itself conducted an impact assessment of the risks relating to human rights and gender inequality. That led to more commitments in these areas being included in the plan on paper, but there is still insufficient attention paid to the risks. In a context in which human rights and environmental defenders fear for their lives and women activists in particular are subject to additional gender-specific threats, such as sexual intimidation, these risks should be strongly integrated in a master plan. Projects being pushed through in Manila Bay, including the development of Bulacan airport, are already leading to intimidation and serious human rights violations. And, despite the fact that a policy note strongly advises against the development of the new airport in Manila Bay because of the permanent harm it will do to the in ecosystem, Dutch dredging company Boskalis has taken on the assignment to develop the airport.

An inclusive plan for Manila Bay

Together with partner Kalikasan-PNE, Both ENDS is engaged in discussions on these abuses with various stakeholders in the Dutch water sector. A more inclusive approach for the master plan however comes up against an intractable practical problem: for security reasons, NGOs and researchers can hardly visit the communities. For the communities themselves, it can be extremely dangerous to protest or criticise the government openly. This makes in impossible to make the MBSDMP a genuinely inclusive process.

As an alternative, Kalikasan wants to develop a community-driven 'People's Plan', which takes as its starting point the reality of communities that are the most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. What do the men and women of these communities see as the greatest challenges, and what do they foresee as future scenarios? Without answers to these questions, there is a danger of ineffective or even counter-productive plans being drawn up, as a result of which local people, and women in particular, will find themselves in even worse situations. We therefore hope that the always engaged Dutch water sector will support this initiative, so that local initiatives can be incorporated in the master plan.

The Dutch water sector's responsibility for an inclusive approach

Given the prominent role it plays in plans like those for Bangladesh and Manila Bay, it is crucial that the Dutch water sector itself enters into dialogue with local civil society and the communities and groups that are directly dependent on and have knowledge of how to use and manage the water. In doing so, it must also not lose sight of the gender dimension. It should also impress on its partners in Bangladesh and the Philippines the importance of them doing the same. By making inclusiveness and meaningful participation a condition for Dutch involvement and committing itself to adhere to clear standards like the OECD Guidelines and the UN Guiding Principles, the Dutch water sector can make the difference for local communities that urgently need to adapt to climate change that they themselves have not contributed to.

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