UNSW Global Water Institute - Susanne Schmeidl and Zafaar Adeel

Women as Agents of Change for Water Security: A focus on conflict and post-conflict situations in the Middle East

The Arab region has dramatically low water availability, which for most countries falls below the global water-scarcity threshold ofone thousand cubic metres of water per person per year. In many of these water-stressed Arab nations, there is nowhere near enough surface water or groundwater to meet their demands, so they rely heavily on alternative water sources such as desalinated water and treated wastewater to augment supply.

Further exacerbating water security in the Arab region is the disproportionately high number of refugees and internally displaced persons due to ongoing conflicts. There are around 13 million refugees in the Arab region, representing about 60% of the total refugees across the world. There are also another 17 million internally displaced people who have been forced to flee their homes and are now situated elsewhere within their country’s border.

In the UNSW Global Water Institute’s August seminar, Dr Zafar Adeel, Executive Director of the Pacific Water Research Centre at Simon Fraser University, discussed the way conflict in the Arab region is affecting the most vulnerable populations in the region – most notably women and girls—who are forcibly displaced from their homes. 

Challenges for women and girls in refugee camps

Women and girls in refugee camps face multiple challenges to their welfare and wellbeing. These include the threat of violence inside camps, an increased amount of time that must be invested in water stewardship, and limitations and inequalities in access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) facilities. Typically, women are also excluded from any type of decision-making process which may introduce strategies to improve the situation.

Dr Adeel also said that interestingly, there is another issue related to water security for women which is not often talked about openly.Life for women and girls in refugee camps. Image credit: Zafaar Adeel

“There is tension between women who are residents and women who have been displaced and are being hosted in the community,” said Adeel.

“The reality is that if an NGO comes in and starts providing services to refugee women which resident women don’t have to begin with, that creates friction.”

These issues for women are compounded by multiple overarching challenges which come with living in a refugee camp. While women are struggling to adjust to changes to water security, they are also dealing with overcrowding, cultural challenges of living with others from diverse backgrounds, lack of electricity and the emotional challenges of such a tremendous upheaval to their lives.

Solving the issues - international, regional and community responses

The International community and the Arab region have taken steps to address women’s issues broadly and in relation to conflict situations. All 17 of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have some intersection with gender and water issues, and the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 defines the need for women to be represented in decision-making for conflict prevention, to incorporate gender perspectives into peacekeeping operations and to protect women and girls from violence, rape and sexual abuse.

At the Arab regional level, specific responses to these International initiatives have taken shape through the introduction of various policies and legislation, including a regional strategy and executive action plan, assembled under the aegis of the League of Arab Nations. However, progress in operationalising these initiatives has been mixed and it is unclear how successful they have been.

Recent work at the Pacific Water Research Centre has focused on strategies to change the status of water insecurity for these women, and Dr Adeel and his team have come up recommendations for a series of actions to be taken at the regional, national, community and international scales.

What we are proposing to the Arab League is a new taskforce focusing on water security in conflict zones

Dr Zafaar Adeel, Executive Director, Pacific Water Research Centre, Simon Fraser University

At the regional scale, they propose a new leadership taskforce, led by women, which looks specifically at women's water security issues in conflict and post-conflict situations enables educational and training initiatives for women in water and science-based programs

“What we are proposing to the Arab League is a new taskforce focusing on water insecurity in conflict zones” said Dr Adeel.

“This could manifest through new, dedicated windows inside the development funds that the Arab league already has, and support women’s leadership opportunities at the national and sub-national levels.”

At the national scale, Dr Adeel suggests that Governments need to become more coherent and coordinated in their approaches, and that they have an important role to play in fostering favourable environments in which gender issues can be discussed more openly. He suggests this can be done by allocating adequate funding and human resources to National Women’s Machineries, and by creating economic opportunities for women to access financial resources including credit.

Dr Adeel also suggests that national Governments need to increase the responsiveness of health services to wellbeing of women and girls residing in refugee camps and informal settlements—including the provision of emotional and psychological services—and to eliminate dysfunction and corruption in existing water institutions.

“There is a lot of dysfunction and corruption in the water sector in the Arab region, and we think that the conflict situations might actually offer an opportunity to reconsider and increase the level of transparency and accountability in the water sector, having secondary benefits in other areas as well,” said Dr Adeel.

At the community scale, the Centre’s recommendations prioritise the allocation of resources to place women in active leadership roles. They also call for increased support for the collection of gender-disaggregated data at the community level to enable better monitoring and evaluation and more effective responses, and the need to better address sexual and gender-based violence for displaced women and girls.

Women being trained as plumbers in Jordan. Image credit: Zafaar Adeel

For International organisations, the Centre stresses that UN agencies and other international organisations must continue to provide immediate relief and aid to vulnerable groups while facilitating coordination between international, regional, and national players, and providing access to WaSH facilities in refugee camps. These facilities must be designed to cater to the specific needs of women while offering security and dignity. Moreover, Dr Adeel suggests that obligatory gender sensitivity training must be provided to all relief workers, with a focus on the safety and security of women in refugee camps.

Looking to the future

Taking a long-term view, Dr Adeel also suggests that there must be a better connection between emergency relief and long-term sustainable solutions, enabling humanitarian assistance to clearly chart a path for transition.

“Typically, there is a gap in how the international community responds; people who do emergency relief have almost nothing to do with those who work in international development or long-term solutions,” said Dr Adeel.

“What we are saying is that those gaps have to be bridged, and perhaps the SDG framing will help us get there.”

When asked why there seems to be a gap between high-level planning and on-ground operationalisation of policies and initiatives, Dr Adeel surmised that this could be linked to cultural biases as well as political roadblocks. More generally, there is also significant fatigue within the Arab region due to the ongoing pressures of conflicts and massive influx of rufugees, which complicates the situation further.

While challenges abound, there have been some success stories in the region in which women are overcoming these challenges in their own unique ways, breaking away from ingrained cultural biases.

For example, in Jordan, the Water Wise Women initiative has seen 25 women trained as plumbers, with 100 more in the pipeline. This has helped to raise awareness about water management, create alternative livelihoods and enable women to explore new cultural frontiers.


Top image: Dr. Susanne Schmeidl, Forced Migration Research Network, UNSW School of Social Sciences, with Dr Zafaar Adeel, Executive Director, Pacific Water Research Centre, Simon Fraser University.

Share this