Press Release: Women leaders unite in shared struggle to protect rivers, confront patriarchy

Thursday, March 7, 2019
Photos by International Rivers

NAGARKOT, NEPAL - The world’s largest hydropower scheme has yet to launch in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The last free-flowing river originating in China remains free of dams despite a spate of proposals. Local energy plans and investments have helped entire communities in Vietnam minimize pollution into rivers, and acquire new, affordable technologies such as solar hot water heaters and clean water technology.

Behind each of these campaigns to protect local economies, ecosystems, and culture are women river advocates, who are converging this week in Nepal around International Women’s Day. Their charge? To unite in challenging the gender inequity underlying the varied threats to rivers the world over. This, in addition to supporting and inspiring each other’s various campaigns, from preventing imminent threats to river communities on the Salween River in Southeast Asia to opposing a proposed dam in Northern Sumatra that threatens to catapult orangutan populations to extinction.

“Not only are women taking leadership the world over in guaranteeing water resources for generations to come, they are bringing into focus that gender equity and resource conservation are two sides of the same coin,” said Kate Horner, executive director of International Rivers.

International Rivers is the organizer of the first ever Women and Rivers Congress, which is hosted by the Nepal Water Conservation Foundation, and supported by Oxfam, American Jewish World Service, the Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action, the MacArthur Foundation, Swedish International Development Assistance (SIDA), the  Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the Arcadia Fund, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Global Greengrants Fund.

The Congress comes in response to the manifold challenges facing rivers and freshwater resources. Most of the world’s great rivers have been dammed, diverted, over-tapped or polluted. According to a 2016 WWF report, in the last 40 years, the fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds that inhabit our rivers and lakes have, on average, lost more than 81 percent of their population. These freshwater species are declining more than twice as fast as land-based and marine species. Less than 10 percent of the world’s largest river basins are protected. Despite well-documented dangers, more than 3,700 hydropower projects are planned or under construction on the world’s rivers. Studies show that if built, they could block free-flowing rivers by more than 20 percent.

The implications are critical. According to the 2016 Convention on Biological Diversity, freshwater ecosystems sustain a higher biodiversity per square mile than almost any other ecosystem. Their fisheries are crucial to food security and livelihoods for millions of people. Large, destructive dam projects can permanently alter to an entire watershed, decimating fisheries and biodiversity, starving cropland and deltas of life-giving sediment, and emitting methane, one of the more damaging greenhouse gases. Water security is recognized as a global priority, with tensions around water management a reality within and between countries.

Women bear the brunt of these challenges, particularly rural women in marginalized communities. These women carry a great part of the burden of providing water for household domestic uses. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, in one day more than 152 million hours of women and girls’ time is spent collecting water for domestic use. These time constraints limit their ability to participate in local governance structures and educational opportunities.

“Women in the Mekong Delta and around the world understand the critical importance of water to sustaining their livelihoods and environment. However, women need more space to promotion to actively participate and lead in water governance for better management of the Mekong, and all major rivers.” said Nguyen Thi Thuy Van of Vietnam Rivers Network.

Women are largely underrepresented or excluded altogether from the decision making process that determines how water is used, managed, and developed. Only seven percent of all ministers of water and natural resources are women, and women are underrepresented at lower levels of decision making, according to UNDP-SIWI Water Governance Facility. Lack of disaggregated national and global data limits the possibilities to develop policies and regulation that is sensitive to the differentiated needs of men and women in different social groups.

“Women water stewards and defenders have, needless to say, fought and overcome tremendous odds sometimes--as with Berta Cáceres and many other women--at the cost of their lives,” said Liliana Avila, senior attorney for human rights and the environment Program at the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense. “This Congress promises to be a amazing step to elevate women’s leadership in resource conservation the world over and enforce the women rights.“

Among the attendees there is:

  • Wangechi Kiongo whose research into the ecological and economic impacts of the Gilgel Gibe Dam in Ethiopia spurred the popular Save Lake Turkana Movement.
  • Khanh Nguy Thi who was given the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2018 for her work effectively modeling sustainable, community-driven alternatives to coal and large hydropower in Vietnam. 
  • Joan Carling who was recently awarded a UN Champion of the Earth Lifetime Achievement Award for her work defending the land and environmental rights of indigenous people like herself.
  • Minket Lepcha who has brought global attention thru filmmaking to the efforts of citizens to oppose hydropower dams in her home state of Sikkim in India.

    For more information, visit or follow on #WomenAndRivers on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook this week. 

Media contacts: 

Nick Guroff, Communications Director
+1 (617) 784-4753