Mekong Regional Forum on Gender Equality in Water Governance: Lao PDR

By Melita Grant, Institute of Sustainable Futures

I’ve been asked more than once or twice recently… “what does gender equality have to do with transboundary watershed management? What’s the connection?” It’s an understandable question – and one that deserves a chat over a cup of tea or a beer. So please grab one and settle in.

We can start by looking at some of the facts and figures included in the recently published report: Gender Equality and Goal 6: The Critical Connection, commissioned by the Australian Water Partnership. Evidence is available, such as a study across 15 countries which revealed that water supply projects designed and run with the full participation of women (compared with non- or partial participation) were more sustainable (Gross et al., 2000).

We can also point to the unequal levels of women and men in positions of influence in water resources management institutions, and large scale water management projects (such as dams and irrigation) being planned without an understanding of the differences in water use and needs between men and women in many contexts. These kinds of omissions can lead to water management decisions threatening livelihoods of people dependent on water resources (for example small scale farming and aquaculture). Experiences in the Mekong Region and evidence of inequalities in the water management sector were powerfully shared with the Mekong Regional Forum on Gender Equality in Water Governance in Vientiane, Lao PDR on 13th September 2017. Oxfam and IUCN coordinated the Forum which was attended by government, private sector and NGO representatives from over five countries (Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam and others). The Australian Water Partnership supported the event by enabling me to attend and present a report co-written by ISF-UTS and WaterAid for the High-Level Panel on Water (HLPW) on Gender Equality and Goal 6: The Critical Connection.

The launch event began with a panel of impressive and influential female water managers and gender experts in the Mekong region, chaired by the Australian Ambassador to Lao PDR, John Williams.

Figure 1. Opening Panel at the Mekong Regional Forum on Gender Equality in Water Resources Management

The panel was followed by an insightful, humorous and very poignant performance by a youth theatre group who were able to skilfully act out issues of exclusion experienced by many women who are water managers, but who are not able to take part in management committees and organisations. The rare Irrawaddy Dolphin also featured which was very special given its endangered status!

Figure 2. Youth theatre group acting out some of the ways that women are excluded from water resources management decision making forums, and what can be done about it.

A session provided by Oxfam on the Gender Impact Assessment Manual for the hydropower sector was a unique opportunity for people from the industry, multilateral development banks, academics and NGOs to come together to hear about the manual and the current trials of its use underway in Lao PDR by hydropower companies. Oxfam’s Bounthavivanh Mixap and team provided the participants with an understanding of how gender impact assessment can be used as a complement to existing environmental impact assessment (EIA) and social impact assessment (SIA) processes, and how the manual is currently being converted into a mobile phone application for use by any organisation interested in trialling it. Oxfam explained that considering gender as part of the development of a large scale water resources management decision, such as a hydropower project, makes good business sense, reduces risks, and support’s a business’s social licence to operate.

Figure 3. Bounthavivanh Mixap (Vanh) from Oxfam presenting the GIA Manual

The following day I presented an overview of the global discourse, challenges and opportunities related to gender equality and inclusion in water resources management. The presentation identified some of the key factors at play globally that Mekong Region actors can tap into (e.g. funding), frameworks and trends (such as the SDGs and bilateral agencies increased focus on knowledge and learning); and tools (such as the Global Water Partnership’s Action Piece and the Green Climate Fund’s gender manual).

Figure 4. Global drivers and opportunities related to gender and inclusion in water resources management

I provided an overview of the Australian Water Partnership commissioned report on gender equality and Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals. In the report, the targets of Sustainable Development Goal 5 (Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls) were mapped against Goal 6 (Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all). This linking process provides water managers with a clear way to see how gender equality is essential to achieving sustainable water resources management, and vice versa. The two goals are inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing.

Figure 5. Melita Grant presents the AWP Report on Gender and Goal 6: The Critical Connection

I also outlined some of the ways in which the Mekong region is leading the global discourse on these connections, and it was evident at the Forum that there are a lot of gender equality champions across the five countries represented, both men and women, and that the rest of the world has a lot to learn from the efforts that are being made in the Mekong to advance inclusion.

Figure 6. Examples of action taken in the Mekong Region to advance gender equality in water resources management

While there is a lot more to do by way of connecting policy and strategies with action plans and resourcing in the Mekong Region as well as across the globe, forums like these are important for bringing attention to the key issues in need of action, sharing lessons learned, and developing coordinated and supportive strategies to drive more inclusive water resources management.


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