Lakes and Rivers

Connecting Nature, Women and Clean Water

This week Conservancy CEO Mark Tercek is participating as a panelist in a Clinton Global Initiative session titled “Girls, Women and Water.” Karin Krchnak, the Conservancy’s Director of International Freshwater Policy, spoke with Conservancy writer Lisa Hayden about this issue.

“We can’t solve health and sanitation issues for communities over the long term without looking to nature as the source of people’s drinking water.” - Karin Krchnak

Lisa Hayden:

Before joining the Conservancy six years ago, you served as a gender trainer and on the board of the Gender & Water Alliance. You also worked closely with the Women for Water Partnership Network and the Women’s Major Group in the Commission on Sustainable Development process. Why is it so important to reach out to women as part of our global efforts to conserve freshwater?

Karin Krchnak:

Women really are stewards of water. In many communities, it’s the women who collect water, who are using it for washing and cooking, and who are caring for family members when they become sick from water-borne diseases. In many places, women truly carry the load when it comes to securing the water supply for their families.

We’ve seen from experience that when women weren’t consulted or involved, water projects tend to be failures. So, if we don’t connect with women, we are missing the opportunity to understand people’s access to clean water, and how women can play an important role in conservation.

Lisa Hayden:

Given that we work in real places, hand in hand with local leaders, can we play a part in helping women have more power over how their natural water sources are used? Or does that violate our policy of deferring to existing governance structures?

Karin Krchnak:

Before I came to the Conservancy, I saw many examples where women were key stakeholders in a community’s water supply and yet they had no seat at the decision-makers’ table. And there can be resistance to getting women involved. For example, women may be called into a meeting, but are then told to stand in the back of the room and not say anything.

In my own career, I’ve often found myself the only woman serving on a board of half a dozen men. So, we are also very excited that Dr. Jennie Ward-Robinson has recently been chosen to lead the Conservancy’s Global Freshwater Program. She will bring 15 years of experience with organizations like UNICEF on issues of water, health and equity for women.

The Conservancy always respects cultural differences as we work with communities, but as we seek to address gender equity in our projects, we should reach out to non-traditional partners — development organizations like CARE — that can work with us to get past barriers to full inclusion of all people involved. For example, the Conservancy’s External Affairs International Government Relations is building a relationship between the conservation community and organizations that work in developing countries on Water Access, Sanitation & Hygiene.

Lisa Hayden:

Can you share any lessons for conservation and water policy from your past experience in sustainable development?

Karin Krchnak:

I was involved in a project installing toilets in a rural community in Mexico. A previous attempt to improve sanitation years earlier had resulted in a toilet being placed on a streambed, which we saw was now being used as a dumping ground for human waste. When we asked about this location for the toilet, a woman responded, “Look, there’s flowers growing here, so nature must be OK.”

While I saw an impaired watercourse, she was looking at it from a different perspective. To me, this just reinforced the idea that when you are working with people from different backgrounds, you have to put aside your preconceptions, keep an open mind and try seeing things through their eyes.

We can’t solve health and sanitation issues for communities over the long term without looking to nature as the source of people’s drinking water, and to land use for potential threats to communities’ quality and quantity of water.

Lisa Hayden:

Can you share an example of a model TNC strategy addressing women and water that can be replicated in many places?

Karin Krchnak:

There are several examples of projects where the Conservancy has worked with women to secure communities’ water supplies. For example, in Papua New Guinea and Kenya, the Conservancy provided rainwater tanks and gravity-fed reservoirs to villages so women and girls didn’t have to walk long distances to get water, and therefore had more time to attend school.

But from my perspective, the most widely replicable model we have is the water fund approach. It’s a multi-faceted strategy to improve watershed management and livelihoods in which downstream users finance upstream conservation to keep the water source healthy for all.

In Quito, Ecuador, for example, the Conservancy and partners provided microfinance and training to allow women to establish small enterprises such as selling dried fruit, or crafts. These supplemental sources of revenue are providing women with alternatives to expanding farming or ranching, so they keep their water clean, both for themselves and for others downstream, including the citizens of Quito.


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