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Farmer Managed Irrigation Systems at the Crossroads

Dr. Barbara Van Koppen, Principal Researcher – Poverty, Gender and Water, IWMI, comments during FMIS conference

“Women are at the center of farmers managed irrigation systems though they are less studied, understood and recognized. However, the irrigation institutions including FMIS are dominated by men?” Such was the tone of the discussion set on Farmer Managed Irrigation Systems, held at the Hotel Himalaya in Kathmandu on April 11, 2017. In a series of enlightening presentations made, the various fields associated with water and irrigation were discussed. More importantly, the focus of the discussion was on to map the associated climatic, gender and socio-ecological challenges. As Dr. Robert Yoder (IDE, Colorado, USA) suggested, the conference was to weave together the multitude of loose threads of narratives stemming from these fields, into one coherent message.

Farmer managed irrigation systems in Nepal are often counted as a successful example of community managed resource systems. These systems have faced decades of change in various dimensions ranging from physical changes in the hydro-climatic and meteorological sphere, to transformation in the socio-economic sphere. As the Himalayan region continues to negotiate with unprecedented climate change events, the revival of these systems remains imperative. But a revival in the true sense for these systems lies in its human element, i.e. the community members that are associated with managing these systems. With large scale migration of men and consequent feminization of agriculture labour, the issue of women’s participation in decision making becomes important. The issue is understanding masculinity in the irrigation governance become central to the deliberations. Irrigation is historically conceptualized as a ‘technical’ subject ignoring the social and political dimensions of distribution of water and its management. The root of this concept is engineering rationality, natural science and masculinity. These issues were first introduced in theoretical sense by Dr. Anjal Prakash (Programme Coordinator, HI-AWARE). Based on the reviews of current studies he located masculinity at the center of debates concerning revival of FMIS as climate resilient systems.  He asked those gathered in the hall, the reason behind such missing representation of women in public and personal spheres including FMIS. He went a step further in explaining how irrigation systems are masculine in nature through its artefacts, infrastructure and governance system. This hegemonic masculinity needs to be discussed and deliberated in the wake of newer challenges taken up by these irrigation systems which have survived for centuries and now at the cross roads of breaking down.

Dr. Pranita Bhushan Udas presents at the FMIS conference

Dr Pranita Bhushan Udas (Gender, Water and Adaptation Specialist at ICIMOD) sharing an positive results of integrating gender in Water Use Master Plan preparation of village level, argued that public investment on irrigation projects prepared through gender inclusive water plan would result larger gender inequity than investment based on power and political influence. Dr Dilli Ram Prasai (Associate Professor, Tribhuvan University) who also presented at the event, takes it a step further by saying that in most irrigation groups, women appear to be almost absent from those groups. Amidst these discussions, there were numerous questions raised by those attending on the reason that gender was being included as an indicator. One audience member reasoned that a simple focus on the number of women participants is inadequate in this discussion because it draws away from the larger focus on the effectiveness of the system. Another pointed out that why shouldn’t the discussion be focusing on alleviating the benefits, rather than focusing on how many women are involved. Overall, the focus of such questions was as to why gender should at all be a focus? Quite a few interesting insights were made from audience members during this discussion where they drew attention to the context specific nature of FMIS users in Nepal. The nature of these comments somehow suggested that women’s participation, although important, has its drawbacks. A comment from Rubika Shrestha (Helvetas) drew nods from the crowd. She pointed out that the inclusion of women in these interactions and workshops only increases the workload for these women. She further pushed if someone had studies how this workload was distributed among family members or was it being distributed at all? Another member asked what would be the importance of gender in FMIS.

The inclusion of gender was explained as important due to the nature of the systems. As agriculture is facing increasing climate risks, the sector has seen a shift in labor from primarily being male-dominated, to having women laborers working in this field now. Krity Shrestha, (Climate Change Officer, Practical Action) brought attention to one such group in the Panchakanya FMIS. This system as Shrestha explained was hailed as a success story, but on further inspection it revealed that there are structural and governance issues that have brought about unpromising changes. FMIS systems are struggling, with climate change impacts as well as their own governance issues. Unless they are supported with capacity and technology to understand the governance and climate change adaptation challenges, they might be unable to face the upcoming challenges Furthermore, a particular landless women’s agricultural laborer group is now potentially vulnerable due to increased mechanization of agricultural practices and lack of other livelihood options. In such a context, would it not be more beneficial to the system shift focus from structural improvement and focus on its people as well? Dr. Barbara Van Koppen (Principal Researcher, Poverty, Gender and Water, IWMI) thought so as she voiced that water needs to be thought of a neutral concept and the emphasis should be on technical improvement. Rather as she further reiterated, “We cannot continue to stay in silos, and we need to move away from people.” Dr. Chanda Gurung Goodrich (Senior Gender Specialist, ICIMOD) pointed out that women’s inclusion in the public sphere, and more importantly in FMIS should not simply be a numbers game, as this very process in itself gives space and voice to women. She believed that important structural milestones could be achieved by simply allowing women to voice their concerns. As she further clarified, this was because masculinity is inherently linked to authority and notions of power therefore making it easier for men to subjugate. It becomes difficult to close the gender gap as femininity is considered as being docile and timid. To truly move towards transformative change, women voicing their opinions would allow for making these systems more women friendly in the future. As Dr. Florianne Clement (Senior Researcher and IWMI Gender focal point) pointed out that women’s roles can be greatly changed as the context changes. She drew from personal experience that as a wife of a man from a conservative state in India, she was expected to stay indoors. While at the same time she fulfilled her professional role in an international organization. If such forms of dualism were possible, it would only require the correct platform for women to emerge as promising leaders even in the FMIS systems.

The interaction was summed up by Mr. Basudev Lohani (DDG, Department of Irrigation) who finished on a positive note. He admitted there indeed were various issues related to gender participation in FMIS. However, he encouraged from anecdotal evidence that other cases do exist. Taking the case of the Surkhet FMIS he said that here was a case where women had successfully managed to run a system for more than a decade. He encouraged those listening to not only focus on these success stories, but more importantly to use these examples as case-studies so that their success can be emulated for the rest of Nepal.

Find the presentations below:

Masculinity in Irrigation: Imperatives for gender transformative decentralized water governance – Dr. Anjal Prakash, ICIMOD

Achieving gender water equity in the face of changing climate context: Lessons from local water planning practices in Nepal – Dr. Pranita B Udas, ICIMOD

Gender and Water Governance: Women’s Role In Irrigation Management and Development – Dr. Dilli R Prasai, Tribhuvan University, Biratnagar, Nepal

Understanding the irrigation governance and mechanisms of water resource management for improved adaptive capacity – Ms. Krity Shrestha, Practical Action,