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By Bianca Nogrady 10 October 2016 5 min read

Ask someone in rural India to draw a typical farmer, and chances are they’ll draw a man. Yet more and more farms in countries such as India and Nepal are being run by women, as the men migrate to cities in search of more secure cash income.

Rural women are already among the poorest, least educated and most vulnerable members of society. Being left to manage the farm places them in an even more precarious position. As they struggle to look after family and manage the work-load of running a farm, they also have to deal with the problem of a lack of clean, reliable, accessible water.

The problem with water

Woman carrying plastic containers of water on her back beside river
Carrying water from the Bagmati River Nepal for washing clothes and general purpose. Image: Tanya Doody.

Water may only be available in any predictable or useful sense during monsoon season. During the rest of the year, women and children often have to walk long distances to get drinking water.

The usual seasonal rainfall generally brings only enough water to irrigate one crop a year, which will put enough food on the table for the family to survive until the following year—as long as the rain falls in the right place at the right time.

To compound the uncertainty of rainfall, groundwater supplies can sometimes be polluted by agricultural and industrial chemicals, or by naturally occurring arsenic in the soil.

Working at the coalface to secure water for rural people

It is a precarious hand-to-mouth existence, but CSIRO senior research scientist Dr Carmel Pollino sees plenty of opportunity to make life easier and safer for these women.

“If we can better secure water supplies and improve productivity, we’re really able to improve the livelihoods of these villagers, especially women,” says Dr Pollino.

CSIRO is working in India, Nepal, Peru and Pakistan to help governments, policymakers and communities understand their water resources and develop evidence-based strategies to manage these resources in the face of an uncertain future.

Some of this work happens at the highest levels of government and administration; for example, informing decision-making about large-scale infrastructure, industry and energy usage; and political negotiations.

But much of it happens at the coalface, with staff from CSIRO and local non-government organisations such as Pradan working directly with the people most affected by water resource decisions.

Some of the teams are examining how rural communities can secure enough water to extend cropping beyond the end of the wet season.  While a single crop might feed the family, a second crop would bring in extra cash, opening up many more possibilities, such as educating the children.

“It’s about allowing people to have better access to water so they’re not just relying on rainfall,” Dr Pollino says.

She has been visiting rural communities to build up a picture of local water resources, which then feeds into the basin-scale model that is used to inform decisions about water management, at both the local and national level.

While bigger-scale changes such as building dams might be harder to implement at such a local level, much can be done through managing groundwater resources to make sure they’re not over-exploited, and allowing aquifers to replenish, particularly during the wet season.

women working in rice paddies
Women working in the paddy fields, Nepal. Image: Tanya Doody.

No water, no fish, no protein

Fish are the main source of protein for many farming communities, and that is something that is not always considered in high-level decision-making, said Dr Tanya Doody, a senior research scientist at CSIRO.

“If you take away water you are killing the fish, so the women and children will have no food because fish are a huge part of their life,” says Dr Doody.

She’s been working in Nepal, looking at the links between water flows and ecology, and identifying what a healthy water-based ecology provides for the communities living in and around the catchment. That work has highlighted the extraordinary biodiversity that thrives around the Koshi Basin, which includes buffalo, crocodiles, gharials, and the unique freshwater Ganges River Dolphin.

More importantly, it has shown the relationships between these valuable ecosystems and the water flows that nourish them. These ecosystems, and the services they provide to the communities that depend on them, can now be considered in decisions about water management.

Environmental flows – lessons from Australia

While the Murray-Darling Basin has taught Australia hard lessons about the importance of environmental flows in nourishing aquatic ecosystems, Nepal and India are at risk of making the same mistakes made here decades ago.

“By diverting river flows for hydropower, they’re going to change river flow dramatically and impact the ecological systems,” Dr Doody says.

“Everyone understands that people need water for drinking and agriculture, but I’ve heard people in Nepal say that they don’t care about fish downstream.”

Educate the women and you educate the children

Indian woman in rice paddy carrying bowl of rice on her head
Rice crops being maintained by a farmer in a tribal village in the State of Jharkhand, India. Image: Carmel Pollino.

Contamination is another big issue for water management. In India, much attention has focused on groundwater contamination from naturally occurring arsenic.

Pollution of water supplies by agricultural and industrial chemicals is a major concern that CSIRO’s Dr Anu Kumar is trying to address, working with women in rural farming villages to educate them about the problem and risks of contaminated water.

“Women need to be educated and given some control and authority in managing water,” says Dr Kumar.

If you educate women, the children will be educated, leading to safer water for drinking, for irrigation and for livelihoods.”

To achieve this, Dr Kumar and colleagues have been running workshops to teach women in rural areas about how to protect themselves from pesticides, and how to avoid contaminating water supplies through their own actions.

Women take their place on the team

In traditionally male-dominated societies, getting women’s voices heard, their concerns addressed and their needs met can be challenging. Much of the CSIRO work being done is not only about dealing with water issues, but also empowering women to play a more active role.

Dr Pollino says that when they started their project in India, there were no Indian women on the Indian teams working with them.

“I think part of the problem with male-dominated leadership is you end up looking at ‘let’s build something, let’s build a dam’,” Dr Pollino says.

CSIRO’s female scientists, through their own visibility as senior scientists, and through actively championing the hiring and training of women, are helping to change this, and are already seeing more and more women take up positions at higher levels in laboratories, in industry and in government.

“It’s a long road for India but given that we’ve been able to specifically request females and our partners have gone and recruited females to be part of the project,” says Dr Pollino.

“Having females in the mix, looking at how to improve outcomes and livelihoods for women, really changes the discussion.”

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