We have less than a decade to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 6 – Clean water and Sanitation is seen as essential throughout the world. To reach it, anthropologist Marietta Shimizu-Larenas stresses that we need to empower the voices of women within the water management sector.

The year is 2012 and I am living in the Andes. I work for a Finnish public-private partnership program aiming to develop higher standards of living for local people, especially women. The program has a strong focus on implementing renewable energy technologies in countries across the world, and today we are on our way to visit one of those projects.

After a bumpy ride down a long-winding mountain road, we arrive at our destination – a village near the Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador. Entering the village, we pass a school where a solar collector has recently been installed for heating water. The collector has three main objectives: reducing reliance on logged wood, saving time for the carer of the schools, and the reduction of illnesses due to lack of hygiene.

While technical experts of our team are inspecting the rooftop installations, I am talking downstairs with the teachers and the parents committee of the shower installation. They are delighted because adults can also use the warm showers outside of school hours. To do this, adults pay a small fee which is used for the maintenance of the system. It seems to be the perfect solution.

However, I almost burn my hand on the trickling hot water when I turn on the tap to test the temperature. So, I asked why is it so hot? The parents and teachers tell me that there is not enough on-demand fresh running water to mix with the heated water.

Marietta Shimizu-Larenas (right) together with children in a village near the Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador.

The spell of actions and solutions

The water board have decided not to prioritise the water for the school, but for the nearby agricultural activities, as they are more important to the local economy. Both the large-scale agricultural activities and water board are run by men. Perhaps these men are right, when you consider that the quality of life also depends on sufficient healthy food. But does it not also rely on balancing the needs of local communities with nearby industry?

This example shows that a project can’t be executed without a reality check. It is essential for the coordinators of a project to actively involve all relevant groups from the very beginning of the process and listen to their needs carefully. Otherwise, it is likely that the investment and installed technology will fall into disrepair, or even worse, cause suffering.

In practice, this involvement proves to be difficult because there is an urgency to act, to convince donors or taxpayers with fast and tangible results (e.g. the amount of installed solar panels). The users experience and maintenance are usually of secondary importance.

This phenomenon is known as the technological bias: a team of experts involved in the mission – mainly men – are under the spell of action, coming up with solutions that usually do not fit within the local cultural context.

In the case of the solar showers, it would have been better to ask who has access to water and why at the beginning of the process. In this way it would have been clear how water management is arranged, and what issues may have come up after implementation. This begs the question, if women or minorities, who often have different water needs than men, also have a say in water management?

If we want to get to the heart of water issues and realize sustainable solutions, it is essential to have feminine values heard at all levels of decision making. In addition to this, more authority and visibility for women in the water sector is needed to legitimise these values.

Inspecting the rooftop installations at school. Photo: Marietta Shimizu-Larenas.

Blue Deal

When one of my Finnish colleague’s asks why it is always men who are on stage at water conferences on behalf of the Netherlands, I was stuck for an answer. She was right. The Dutch water sector is also built on masculine values, such as solving, competition and linear working.

However, this could change when implementing the Blue Deal. This is an international water program recently started by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairsand Ministry ofInfrastructure and Water Management, as well as all water boards. Their ambition is to provide 20 million people, in forty river basins worldwide, with sufficient clean and safe water by 2030.

In this way, the Netherlands positions itself as a partner for regional and national water managers elsewhere in the world. This could be the perfect moment to strengthen feminine values in the water sector, giving more attention to inclusiveness, good governance, and socio-cultural values.

Over the centuries, the Netherlands had to defend itself against flooding, while many Blue Deal partner countries are facing other challenges, such as water shortage. With these new and unfamiliar challenges, it becomes ever more important to study cultural and historical patterns to identify why people do or do not have access to water.

The Blue Deal partnerships offers the perfect opportunity to dive into local water issues. Thus knowledge, balance of power, and roles between men and women need to be seriously examined. This will enable lasting relationships and positive results within the Blue Deal program and the United Nations SDGs.

Chimborazo, Ecuador. Photo: John Ways, Unsplash.

Observe and listen

To achieve this goal, we need to engage in an active connection, as I did in my work in the Andes. During this time, we spoke with experts from the capital city and the local communities, allowing a world of complexity to open-up. It is clear that everyone has different priorities, depending on their place of residence, age, ethnicity and gender. So why not have these different priorities heard?

It is better to observe and listen to the place and the women who are active there, without immediately coming up with a solution. Because a technical solution only works if it is embedded in a cultural context, and you only learn to understand this context if you put yourself in a vulnerable position, abandoning the idea of ​​efficiency and control.