Women, water, work and inequality

Uzbekistan. Image: Embassy of Uzbekistan, Washington D.C.
Uzbekistan. Image: Embassy of Uzbekistan, Washington D.C.

By Eric Freedman

Water is a precious commodity in rural Uzbekistan. It’s in short supply but essential for the cotton and wheat that are the landlocked Central Asian country’s “strategic export commodities” providing 30 percent of its gross domestic product.

Water is just as essential for peasants who grow most of their own food.

Now a new study shows the interconnection among water, women, work and gender inequality under Uzbekistan’s government-mandated water management system that overwhelmingly favors private farms owned by men.

That allocation system largely excludes peasant women whose “subsistence water needs [are] being taken less seriously than the market-oriented needs of private farmers,” write professors Elena Kim of the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan, Conrad Schetter of the Bonn International Center for Conversion in Germany and Anna-Katharina Hornidge of the University of Bremen in Germany,

How do they reach that conclusion?

Kim, whose research interests include gender development, women and natural resources, conducted field research in a village called Urto-Yop in Khorezm, one of the country’s poorest provinces. The study received funding from UNESCO and the German Ministry of Development and Research.

The village of 11,000 residents is about 66 miles (100 kilometers) downstream of the Amu Darya River, the area’s principal source of water, and located “at the tail end of irrigation canals” running from the river. Three upstream villages get water before it reaches Urto-Yap.

Men in Urto-Yop head all its private farms. And because the men in most of the village’s families are labor migrants working in Russia, Kazakhstan or elsewhere in Uzbekistan, “women peasants have become heads of households and assume all the farming work.”
That leaves women responsible for fertilizing the soil, planting, irrigation and harvesting while also managing their households, according to the study that Kim recently presented at the Central Eurasian Studies Society conference at Princeton University.

Gender gaps in agriculture are not uncommon elsewhere in the world as well.

For example, women reportedly account for half the agricultural labor force in sub-Saharan Africa, but their plots are 20–30 percent less productive than plots managed by men, according to the U.N’s Food and Agriculture Organization. A World Bank study of the gender-based productivity gap in Ugandan agriculture identified a number of factors for that disparity. Among them: female-managed plots on average are smaller, hillier and likely to be irrigated than those managed by men. Women are less likely to receive extension services, use improved seeds and apply manure, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. “The magnitude and drivers of this gender gap,” the study found, are “a source of income inequality and aggregate productivity loss.”

Now back to the situation in Uzbekistan.

The country uses a water management system established after its secured independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. The district’s Water User Association for Urto-Yop has a male chair, five male hydraulic engineers — called water masters — and a female accountant, the only woman on the staff.

What evidence did the research team find of gender-based inequality? A major factor is inequality in access to information. On one hand, the Water User Association notifies male farmers by telephone of the “exact date and time they should expect the water to arrive” to irrigate their fields.

On the other hand, peasant women don’t receive such advance notice. As a result, “many women must physically go to canals to see if and when water becomes available,” Kim, Schetter and Hornidge write. They cite the example of one woman who takes two hours by donkey cart to reach her field and check the canal.

The association releases water for irrigation once every 10 days to two weeks.

So if a women fails to be in the right spot at the right time, she misses the “once-in-two-weeks opportunity to irrigate her land.”

As further evidence, the association assigns water masters to help male farmers with irrigation but not to assist peasant women.

“When the conditions of peasants, land and their irrigation needs are ignored at the local level, they will be subsequently invisible and unknown in the higher institutional levels of the water delivery system,” the study says.

Are there any solutions? “Space must be created for peasants to benefit from enhanced water management mechanisms,” it says. “If policymakers want everybody to benefit from a policy, women must not be overlooked in its development and implementation.”

Knight Center director Eric Freedman’s latest book, with Mark Neuzil is Environmental Crises in Central Asia: from Steppes to Seas, from Deserts to Glaciers (Routledge).

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