Géraldine Gené, Legal Advisor, giving an engaging presentation on access to water for women and indigenous peoples in Central America

On the opening day of World Water Week 2018 in Stockholm, Géraldine Gené (WaterLex) presented on “Water, Women and El Corredor Seco” in a session on Tapping into collective wisdom: Gender sensitive development and water ecosystems hosted by Stockholm International Water Institute, UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme, Australian Water Partnership, and Women for Water Partnership.

The human rights to water and sanitation are an obligation under international law for all people to have the rights to access, under safe conditions. Equally, people have the right to a healthy environment. The two rights are intrinsically linked, not just as rights, but also from a water management perspective. While the status of laws and policies at a river basin level may recognise these rights in international and national frameworks, the practical processes for introducing workable policies, monitoring and compliance are often far from being realised, and can ignore the rights of women and indigenous peoples. The presentation highlighted how these two groups are often the ones at highest risk of lacking access to safe water and sanitation.

Gené discussed how local communities in the Dry Corridor have had to assume the responsibility of water provision through communal water and sanitation organizations (OCSAS) that are organised in a larger, regional network of The Latin American Confederation of Community Water and Sanitation Organizations (CLOCSAS). In CLOCSAS meetings, women and indigenous peoples have recounted their own experiences, which Gené shared in the session – illustrating the difficult conditions these groups face and how they fight and work hard for their rights.

One such case came from Honduras, where women have had a significant increase in decision-making positions after working with the non-governmental organisation The Honduran Association of Water Boards (AHJASA). AHJASA has worked on strengthening local capacities and community participation to improve access to the human rights to water and sanitation in rural areas. They have done this by providing technical staff who have been trained in inclusion policies with a gender focus and new work methodologies, and by holding workshops with service users to help them develop more confidence in their own capacities and skills. These policies and methodologies as well as the workshops have led to women gaining respect and recognition at the community level.

In the case of The Zarca Dam in Honduras, Gené shared how indigenous peoples struggle for their rights is ongoing. Land that was part of the ancestral territory of the indigenous communities Lenca were acquired by a company building the Zarca Dam, as a result indigenous peoples were evicted from their homes, their crops destroyed and their access to water threatened. The communities organised a Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) and protested the dam. Although several of the financing organizations withdrew as a result of the protests, the project remains active.

Gené concluded the presentation with reminding us that although Central America has enough water, aggravating factors such as population growth, climate change and the ignorance of rights of groups such as women and indigenous peoples, ensure that access to water remains a crucial issue.