Working Papers   89

Gender and Water Governance: Women’s Role in Irrigation Management and Development in the Context of Climate Change

Published: 01-Jan-2014
English PDF (79)


Addressing gender issues is essential in promoting and advancing the role and economic, social, political, legal and cultural status of women. The need to address this concern has been increasingly acknowledged by the government of Cambodia since it would help to improve and sustain not only family economy but also national development and economic growth (UN Women 1995) (RGC 2010). In its third five-year strategic plan, Neary Rattanak III, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MOWA) sought to ensure gender-responsive national policies, legislation and reform programmes, support the economic empowerment of women, develop the capacity of women and address the main barriers to women’s access to their right to fully participate in, and benefit from, economic and social development (MOWA 2011b).

Cambodian farmers mainly depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. However, during the last one and a half decades, Cambodia has experienced frequent floods, windstorms and droughts that have severely damaged agriculture as well as property and human life. Significant rice production has been lost to drought, which has mainly occurred in the mid-wet season almost every year in the major rice-producing provinces. Flooding has also become a real challenge for farmers, especially the rural poor. The 2011 flooding had a severe impact on human life and assets, infrastructure and crops (ADB 2011).

The government is strongly committed to addressing climate change impacts (MOE 2006). As part of this, it is managing water resources following the integrated water resource management (IWRM) principle (MOWRAM 2007a).

Under IWRM and participatory irrigation management and development (PIMD) policies, women have gradually participated more in village and community water management. However, due to limited capacity and socio-cultural and physical constraints, only a few have been able to fully join farmer water user communities (FWUCs) in water and irrigation management as well as in disaster risk reduction activities.

This study aims to establish women’s roles and constraints in irrigation and agricultural development and management in the context of the changing climate, analyse their priority needs and raise awareness of women’s major challenges in water resource management and climate change adaptation. This will enable agencies and groups working on gender issues to take appropriate action and give support. It also seeks to generate realistic recommendations for reducing or eliminating barriers to Cambodian women’s greater engagement in sustainable water resource management, environmental protection and climate change resilience.

The research involved a desk review, focus group discussions (FGDs) and key informant interviews (KIIs) to gather information on water governance, agriculture, gender roles in irrigation management and development, socio-economic and livelihood improvement and related issues. The study drew upon the results of FGDs, KIIs and provincial workshops in late 2010 in the three provinces in which women were asked to present their critical challenges in water and irrigation management and the appropriate measures to solve those challenges. The collected data were summarised in a matrix format following the gender analytical frameworks employed in the study: the Harvard Analytical Framework or Gender Roles Analysis Framework, the Community-based Risk Screening ToolAdaptation & Livelihoods, the Socio- Economic and Gender Analysis and the Longwe Framework (or Empowerment Framework). This was done to identify gender differences and inequalities, including access to and control over resources among men and women, responsibilities and roles in society or the community, practical and strategic gender needs, constraints and benefits.

The study found that people generally want to have more women in management and development roles in local communities and in public work (such as FWUCs or commune councils) because women understand their issues and can solve some critical issues (water use conflict, money or irrigation service fee collection and management, women’s issues and needs) better than men in a fast and peaceful manner. At commune level, women have opportunities and chances equal to those of men. Rural women have notably participated in meetings or training on women’s rights, saving groups and agriculture. They are actively involved in their communities. Furthermore, they are well aware of their rights in society and are able to settle complicated issues of their families or communities.

In FWUCs, men and women play very important roles in the development or rehabilitation, operation and maintenance of irrigation systems. Compared with the past, women have become more active, committed and able to put forward their views. However, gender imbalance in FWUCs still exists, since women have many household chores to perform. Because of this, only a few women have the time to join FWUCs and village and commune development activities, particularly in water and irrigation management or in disaster risk reduction. At the same time, even though they are committed, women still lack capacities, experience and skills in this sector. These barriers have affected the willingness of the women to join in public affairs.

It is noticeable that men and women have different roles, challenges and abilities. Compared with men, the number of women in FWUCs (and also in commune councils) is low. Among 43 members of FWUCs in the study areas, only nine are female (21 percent). Most of the important positions in FWUCs, such as chair and first and second vice-chair, are dominated by men. While women mostly hold positions as treasurers and accountants in the committee, men tend to take overall management control, including water allocation, irrigation system operation and maintenance and water use conflict resolution, as well as in rice planting. Men also provide technical input and final (household and community) decision-making. Unequal numbers, roles and power have pushed women into a weakened position.

Rural farmers have faced frequent and severe natural disasters and climate impacts, particularly floods, windstorms, high temperatures, vector-borne diseases and droughts, in the last one and a half decades. Interviewees observed that the climate is becoming more abnormal from one year to the next. The temperature is rising, and farmers experience increasing numbers of pests (mainly from February to March) like worms, grasshoppers, small caterpillars and brown leaf-hoppers that can destroy many hectares of rice in just one night. High temperatures also increase the incidence of sickness in children and reduce crop growth and yield. Droughts are increasingly frequent, and droughts or dry spells have become longer in the last 10 years. Livelihood resources have been damaged or are unavailable. During droughts and water shortages, the families most affected are poor and/or female-headed, because they lack both equipment (pumps, hand tractors) and labour. A further change can be noted in rainstorms that are longer or shorter than the norm, or that are delayed. Sometimes rice fields are quickly inundated and damaged by heavy rain. For example, the floods that occurred in 2009 and 2011 severely damaged agriculture, the environment, infrastructure, human settlements and even human life.

Given these challenges, significant land and water resources are required. These include funds for building or maintaining irrigation systems and flood protection dams, technical support from relevant provincial departments, FWUCs, commune councils and other social groups. All of these are crucially important for both male and female farmers to improve agricultural production, to generate income, adapt to climate change and to generally build resilience. However, women have less access to and control over those resources than men.

It is clear that the vulnerability to climate change among men and women is different. This relates to their capacities, the resources available to them, their experience and their levels of responsibility. Women have potential roles in provincial, district, commune and village climate change adaptation and disaster management mechanisms. They work in volunteer groups, in women’s help groups, on women and childcare committees and on women and child consultative committees to assist women and children when disasters occur.

Rural people need to have equal rights and access to and control over those resources, as well as the opportunity to participate in public decision making. Although legal frameworks and mechanisms have been developed for gender equality and for empowering and inspiring women’s commitment and participation, the capacities of women, social and cultural norms and internal rules and regulations in rural areas are still challenges to be overcome.

FWUCs, commune councils and men and women from relevant institutions are very openminded about women’s participation in the community, the commune and public work in general. However, as mentioned above, women’s experiences in water and water governance or in climate change adaptation activities remain limited compared with those of men. Women tend to be hindered by the demands of housework, and this reduces the time and opportunities they have to participate in public affairs. As a result, FWUCs have tended to be dominated by men: women are mostly found in more passive positions and have to seek support from men on water allocation, irrigation system construction and maintenance, water use conflict resolution and disaster risk reduction activities.

Therefore, more needs to be done to promote gender sensitivity and gender empowerment in water governance, agriculture and climate change adaptation.


Below are some key options to diminish challenges. They also stimulate discussion on the empowerment of women and the mainstreaming of gender sensitivity and the role of women within water management, agriculture and climate change adaptation that will boost the mandate and responsibility of FWUCs without diminishing the important local role and authority of men.

Recommendation 1: Minimise women’s challenges in water, agriculture and climate change adaptation

A deficiency of suitable capacity, skill and experience, and limited opportunities and time for working in these sectors, remain challenges for women’s participation in water and agriculture development and climate change adaptation. To minimise those challenges, the following measures should be undertaken:

·         strengthen the capacity of women through FWUCs and other local social groups and motivate men and women to work towards gender equality;

·         review and reform existing rules (community internal rules, election criteria and by-laws) and regulations that may hinder the participation of women or their representatives;

·         ensure that new policies and development programmes or projects take into account gender sensitivity and promote the active participation of women at all levels; 

·        establish and facilitate women’s help groups to support gender mainstreaming and reduce gender constraints;

·        ·        enhance women’s economic, social, political, legal and cultural status and promote gender awareness-raising for women and men in communities, villages and communes; 

·       ·          encourage men to allocate time (by taking on some of their household jobs) for women to work (or to participate) in the community or public affairs.

Recommendation 2: Improve water governance, irrigation system expansion and extension services

Women’s livelihoods are more susceptible than men’s to climate shocks because their farming activities rely mainly on water. The irrigation systems and agricultural extension services that use, or relate to, modern technologies that help farmers to cope with climate change, are not available to the small-scale farming activities in which women are involved. Thus, key areas to be taken into account include: 

·         strengthening water governance by addressing its economic, social, gender, environmental and political dimensions to ensure that water resources and irrigation systems are managed in a transparent, participatory, equitable and accountable manner; 

·         supporting and reinforcing FWUCs following IWRM and PIMD principles and communitybased adaptation frameworks;

·         handing over appropriate responsibilities to women in FWUCs such as planning and decisionmaking in water management and development and disaster risk reduction activities; 

·         expanding irrigation systems to secure water availability, to reduce water stress and user conflict arising from water scarcity and to control flood water. In addition, awareness raising about irrigation management, agricultural development and climate change adaptation should be started with women at household level; •

·         widening the provision of agricultural extension services to farmers and increasing field demonstrations and local short training courses; 

·         ·      encouraging women to become involved in agricultural extension services and in women’s help groups and field demonstrations;

·         ·        improving women’s engagement and strengthening gender equality mainstreaming.

Recommendation 3: Improve gender mainstreaming in water governance and adaptation to climate change

Under government directives, various state, private sector and civil society institutions are to incorporate gender equality through their sectoral implementation plans. Women’s livelihoods are even more vulnerable when there is a discrepancy in gender equity in social, cultural and political institutions. Thus, some important measures include:

·         establishing appropriate policy and guidelines that enable women and men (girls and boys) to have equal opportunities in resource allocation and management, and to share their views and concerns in decision making;

·         enhancing gender considerations across sectors in order to give women the education, skills and capacity needed to participate in an equal manner with men; 

·         promoting and integrating local knowledge with scientific research into climate change adaptation strategy and actions; 

·         providing equal opportunities for men and women to control their livelihood resources, to have their voices heard and their challenges removed. Particular attention should be given to the development of a comprehensive gender equality strategy that will ensure that men and women have   equal social, economic, decision-making and political opportunities; 

·         promoting the participation of men, women and social groups in water and agricultural development initiatives and climate change adaptation programmes and projects, and establishing mechanisms that enable them to benefit equally from these; 

·         enhancing collaboration among state, private and civil society organisations to review and reform existing unequal structures in FWUCs and other local social groups. Practical efforts should be formulated and people motivated to strengthen or create more gender equity in social, economic and livelihood development and climate change response.

Recommendation 4: Promote women’s participation and empowerment in water governance and climate change adaptation

Population growth, human development activities and climate-related hazards threaten the resources on which rural women depend. Improving women’s rights and ensuring their access to those resources are therefore significant. Important activities include: 

·         providing equal and suitable opportunities for farmers, FWUCs and other social groups and committee members to participate and exercise their rights and obligations in natural resources utilisation, management and development (in leadership and decision-making roles), and to have equal access to and control over common property resources; 

·         increasing women’s access to professional skills and on-the-job training (based on practical and strategic needs) and capacity development programmes in agricultural production and diversification; irrigation management, operation and maintenance; gender equality; disaster management; and climate change adaptation; 

·        ·         motivating competent women to share experiences, skills and information that would empower and enhance the knowledge and capacity of other women; 

·        ·        supporting farmer associations, cooperatives and other forms of local collective action to solve gender and women’s issues;

·       ·         reviewing gender strategy and integrating the principles of gender equality and women’s empowerment into all sectors; 

·        ·         reviewing and monitoring ongoing water and irrigation development and climate change adaptation programmes and projects to ensure that pro-poor and gender issues have been taken into account.

Related Publications