Feminist Philanthropy and the Fight Against Water Privatization

International Rivers joined with American Jewish World Service, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Arcadia Fund, and the MacArthur Foundation recently to sponsor the Women and Rivers Congress. (Photo credit: International Rivers)

What would you do if you woke up one morning to find that your home had been cut off from all clean water?

In the United States, the first instinct would be to call your water company, or buy a flat of bottled water — but in societies around the world relying on freshwater rivers for their families’ survival and livelihood, access to clean water is being threatened in new and frightening ways every day.

According to International Rivers, roughly two-thirds of the world’s rivers have been negatively impacted by the 50,000 or so dams that have been built in the last 100 years, funded by supporters of water privatization. Because of this, once-great waterways like the Indus, the Colorado, and the Yellow Rivers no longer reach the sea, and the areas that once thrived on the mix of salt and fresh water can no longer support the diverse communities of life, human and otherwise, that formerly called these deltas home.

Water privatization — the influence of corporations that bottle natural water, build hydroelectric dams, and otherwise divvy up the world’s limited freshwater resources for private financial gain — is threatening the way of life for communities around the world.

In the United States, where clean water is as easy to access as turning a faucet, the issue of privatization appears in the dangerous amounts of lead poisoning residents in Flint, Michigan and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are subjected to.

Abroad, water privatization threatens the very survival of rural communities that rely on clean freshwater resources to feed the forests, plains, and deltas that feed families.

As providers for their families, leaders in self-sufficiency, and pioneers of 21st-century survival, women are forming the front lines of the campaign against water privatization. Their unique — and often degraded — social roles place them in the optimal position to observe, respond to, and fight against water privatization, but they are also disproportionately affected by the disastrous impacts.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, dams in the Inga Falls region have cut off access to the rich lands surrounding the Congo River, where women find the food and produce they use to feed their families and fund their small livelihoods. The next planned dam, Inga 3, could result in the displacement of as many as 10,000 people.

“This destruction is amplified by the marginalization of Inga
women,” writes Cristen Dobson and team in Our Voices, Our Environment: The State of Funding for Women’s Environmental Action. The report, generated in collaboration with the Global Greengrants Fund, the Prospera International Network of Women’s Fund, and the Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA), offers a deep dive into the role of women — particularly indigenous women — in the fight against water privatization.

“Despite being the main custodians of the land and their
communities,” the report continues, “the women of Inga are at the bottom of society. In a corrupt, unequal, and unjust system, they are the last to access information or receive any kind of benefits from infrastructure projects like Inga 3.”

The campaign against water privatization offers a unique opportunity for feminist philanthropy to make a huge difference — and quickly.

Less than .2% of all philanthropic dollars are dedicated to women and the environment. Yet in this global #MeToo moment there is a growing awareness of the interconnectedness of women’s rights and resource protection. Women like the recently-assassinated Dilma Ferreira Silva and Berta Cáceres, who were both brutally murdered after publicly speaking out against the construction of dams on their countries’ natural rivers, have given their lives to see women and communities have a greater say in resource governance.

Funders including the Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA), American Jewish World Service, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Arcadia Fund, and the MacArthur Foundation recently sponsored the first Women and Rivers Congress in Nepal to rise to the occasion. And in Nigeria, funders like Conservation Food and Health and the Wallace Global Fund are helping to get a Pan-African network off the ground to explore the impact of water privatization on women.

It’s inspiring — but it isn’t enough.

Although women are often at the forefront of environmental initiatives, their voices are not adequately supported by philanthropic efforts.

“Environmental funders may understand the need for natural resource protection and the strategies that work, but often struggle to appreciate the myriad barriers women face that keep them from actively participating in, and ultimately ensuring the success of, environmental protection efforts,” write Eve Rehse (Global Greengrants) and Augusta Hagen-Dillon (Prospera). “Women’s rights funders, on the other hand, are beginning to understand and appreciate that women’s economic and social equality hinges on a clean, safe, and healthy environment.”

According to the Greengrants report, grants that directly supported women and the environment totaled $110.2 million in 2014, but this totals only 0.2% of all foundation grants from the year — and almost two thirds of it came from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation alone.

“The current funding gap for women and the environment signifies a missed opportunity for funders, who are committed to ensuring a healthy and equitable world for all, to create greater impact,” reads the report. “To confront the most pressing environmental challenges, women must have adequate access to resources, opportunities, and decision-making power.”

Even when philanthropic dollars go toward programs working against water privatization, the funding can have a negative impact on the very populations it seeks to serve. This happens when female representation is not accurately reflected for the populations living in affected areas — for example, a campaign in India sought to connect women with clean water by using those women to construct water pumps. Overburdened by their already enormous responsibilities, the women of the community banded together to challenge the government to take on the project’s construction responsibilities.

The Greengrants report summarizes the issue: “Because women were treated as mere instruments in the conceptualization and implementation of the project, rather than as partners in its development and execution, the project actually harmed the population it was seeking to help.”

Until women are accurately represented in the campaigns that seek to improve their lives, true improvement and the dissolution of water privatization remains a pipe dream.

Organizations are actively seeking new ways to bridge the gap between water campaigns and the women they seek to represent. In March 2019, International Rivers hosted the first Women And Rivers Congress in Nagarkot, Nepal. Almost 100 women from more than 30 countries gathered to honor the female pioneers who have defended and protected the world’s freshwater resources, and raised some of the awareness needed to dismantle longstanding gender inequalities at the heart of river conservation.

“Women are laying down their bodies and giving their lives to protect our rivers…our lifeblood,” said keynote speaker Joan Carling, Co-convenor of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for the Sustainable Development Goals. “When women stand on equal footing with men in deciding the fate of our freshwater resources, the well-being of the planet and future generations will be assured.”

Over the course of the event, the Congress aligned to develop “a roadmap for collective action,” which is designed to amplify women’s voices in the fight to protect the world’s rivers. Divided into four main goals, the roadmap aims to improve representation, efficiency, and decision-making power for impacted women over the coming years:

  1. Generate knowledge and influence.
  2. Mobilize resources.
  3. Strengthen the movement.
  4. Frame the narrative and tell our stories.

Roadmaps like this lie at the heart of other like-minded organizations. Corporate Accountability (CA) is one such global organization fighting for humanity’s right to clean water.

“Water is our most essential resource — a resource that belongs to us all,” reads CA’s water campaign mission statement. “[The] water crisis is only deepened by the actions of transnational water corporations that exploit the global crisis to gain control of and commodify water.”

Corporate Accountability uses a worldwide network of volunteers and campaigners to fight against water privatization giants like Nestle, Veolia, and Suez — three of the main corporations at the forefront of the privatization debate. Through peaceful protests, campaigns to eradicate bottled water in national parks and other protected areas, and community mobilization for natural areas directly threatened by water “profiteers,” Corporate Accountability seeks to keep water in public hands, and restore the glory of rivers and waterways that are threatened by corporate interests.

Activism and philanthropy go hand in hand, especially when human lives are on the line. The fight for clean water is far from over, and continues to claim lives, disrupt families, and destroy communities with each massive dam project that cuts off another waterway from the areas it fed for generations.

“In this time of climate crisis, floods and droughts, and growing water scarcity, protecting rivers and people against existential threats is ever more urgent,” reads the Nagarkot Statement, the summation of the Women and Rivers Conference:

“We honor the women who have given their lives in the struggle to save our rivers and environmental commons for all who depend on them. We stand on the shoulders of women who have long been leaders in this movement and we celebrate their achievements. We join hands with local and indigenous communities who continue to face enormous peril in safeguarding their water and territories. We recognize that this is a long-term struggle and we recommit to supporting each other and welcoming other committed activists to our movement.

“We stand together, united in solidarity. We commit to continuing our fight to protect free-flowing rivers and the lands, forests, and territories they sustain, to ensure women’s leadership in decision-making at all levels over freshwater resources, and to strengthen and build alliances and grow our movement, for the future of ourselves as women, our families and communities, and our planet.”


To learn more about the global water crisis, visit International Waters, Corporate Accountability, and the Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA).

To learn more about Philanthropy Women, who we are, and what we do, read our 2019 update from Editor-in-Chief Kiersten Marek.

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Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist headquartered in Annapolis, MD and Philadelphia, PA. She has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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