Commentary: Dams are a Women’s Issue

Monti Aguirre

There is wide recognition that the development of big dams has been especially harmful to women. Those behind the construction of dams have failed to protect the rights and welfare of those who are affected by these projects, and particularly have failed to resolve the problems caused to women and children. Many countries are signatories to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which holds signatory countries accountable for specific actions to promote women's rights and legislation to ensure equal treatment and participation. These agreements have not been taken into account in the planning, construction and operation of large dams.

The consequences associated with the construction of these projects for women are long-lasting. Women become further impoverished and marginalized, with very little capacity to improve their lives or those of their children. What follows are generations of deprived lives.

This special issue reflects on the broad spectrum of "women's issues" that arise from the building of large dams on the world's rivers. Some authors describe what women face when they lose their lands, homes and livelihoods. Others talk about their vision for their rivers. We also profile women taking charge, and being a force for change in their communities and the wider world.

As a woman who has worked to protect rivers for many years, I would like to give thanks to all the women in my life who have taught and guided me. Over the years, as I traveled to meet communities affected by dams, I have seen how these huge projects bring new hardships to the world of women and children. In Latin America, where I work, the leadership against these projects was historically mostly men, but in the past 15 years or so, women have found their voices and have argued sharply and effectively against projects that rob them of their lives, rivers, forests and rights.

Up on Chile's Bio-Bio River, I met Nicolasa Quintreman, a Pehuenche indigenous woman who lost her land to the Ralco Dam. She fought against the giant energy company Endesa for years, until finally she was the only person from the community who refused to give up the fight. Strong pressure from Endesa and the Chilean government forced the Pehuenche out. Nicolasa was the last one to move. She received a better settlement, but her first choice was to remain living at her house by the Bio-Bio. While she lost her fight, her courage and fortitude left their mark on me and many others.

Waterfall at Juanacatlan, on the Santiago River
Waterfall at Juanacatlan, on the Santiago River
Aviva Imhof
Lupita Lara's home stood in the way of plans by the government of Mexico to dam the Santiago River, near Guadalajara City.  "I saw them knocking down houses and finishing off my community and I felt that they injected me with strength and courage," she recalls. "It's nothing more than arming yourself with courage, valor, and defending what's ours, defending our environment, defending our communities." Lupita's fight paid off, and the Arcediano Dam was stopped.

Sometimes, after the social trauma of forced resettlement, women find they are up against their own menfolk, not just the dam authorities. Members of Asprocig, the organization of downstream communities affected by the Urra Dam in Colombia, found out that their goal to revitalize their communities (who still suffer impacts from the dam) was better accomplished if women played vital roles in leadership, and handled the money at the organizational and household levels. This solved the problem of men using money earned from fishing and crops to buy beer or prostitutes. Women used the money to educate children and put food on the table. Fighting machismo is on their agenda, and the men know it.

Overcoming the barriers to women's participation and influence in the developing world will require huge amount of work and change. But through capacity building, organizing, getting involved, using the media, and speaking out, women are becoming increasingly empowered. The improvement of women's lives is essential for achieving a healthy life and environment for present and future generations.

Ultimately, development decisions that do not include the people who are most directly affected by them is a road to nowhere. Women need to be sitting at the table – and not just at the kitchen table – when decisions on dam building take place.