As Trump ushers in unprecedented corruption and collusion with the fossil fuel industry and decress the DAPL pipeline move forward, there has been one small victory: several American cities along with Norway have divested from the companies behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. Of course, no one really knows the impact this will have, and it probably won’t stop the pipeline from going forward, but it will hopefully keep DAPL and water rights in the media. And although the water issues regarding Standing Rock are not due to drought, their water issues are due directly to the fossil fuel industry, which is driving another type of water crisis around the world – unprecendented drought.
Drought can cause the fall of entire civilizations. Within the anthropological record, cities have been abandoned due to drought, and drought is thought to be an important tipping point in the complete abandonment of the Maya civilization.
Which doesn’t bode well for many parts of the world currently in dire states of drought due to climate change. Syria, Sudan, Madagascar, Mexico, California – all places in the grips of prolonged droughts and also in the grip of violence and abandonment. Well, except for California, which makes an important distinction between the consequences of climate change for the “developed” and “developing” worlds. There is also another distinction that needs to be made: the effects of drought on the lives of women.
In many households within the developing world, women are the primary users and managers of water for reproductive and household activities including cooking, cleaning, subsistence agriculture, health, and sanitation. Thus women and girls are overwhelmingly the individuals responsible for gathering water, specifically from natural water sources such as lakes and rivers. Men, on the other hand, use water for income-generating activities such as large-scale agriculture or livestock management.
As natural water sources in the developing worlds become depleted by drought due to climate change, women and girls have to spend more time searching for and gathering water – leaving them less time to focus on education, less time to earn wages, and pushing their bodies to exhaustion. Furthermore, traveling further and for longer amounts of time to collect water puts women at risk for sexual violence, particularly in conflict zones. In Darfur, women were often targeted for rape as they left the safety of villages and refugee settlements to gather firewood and water.
Poverty around the world has become feminized, and as drought continues to grip entire regions, that feminization continues unabated. Even when the droughts cease temporarily, water comes in the form of deluges instead of traditional rainy seasons – causing even more large-scale destruction to substistence farming and homes.
Without education, with less and less time to earn living wages, with the inability to care for the needs of their families, women in drought stricken regions are finding themselves becoming more and more entrenched in poverty. Around the world, land ownership ultimately influences decisions over management and distribution of income from existing or potential water resources, and the ownership and distribution of water itself. Because women own less than 2% of land globally, women do not have the ability to influence decisions on water management to their own benefit. In other words, the men who own the land on which industries are run will be the ones making the decisions of how to prioritize who gets water and who gets income generated from water management.
AS we have seen with DAPL and Standing Rock, industry always prioritizes industry.
Thus, the loss of easily available water along with the continued disenfranchisement of women in land ownership will only negatively impact women’s rights and their quality of lives. As public sources of water dwindle, women will find themselves more and more at the mercy of the men and industries that control the private sources of water – entities which do not prioritize the needs of women and girls.
DAPL and Standing Rock thus are only a starting point in the fight for water rights, and Donald Trump has made it a goal of his presidency to allow the fossil fuel industry to prosper as unregulated as possible. This not only means heightening the risk of water pollution, but also excerbating the cause of intense drought.
On an interesting anthropological side note, in the egalitarian San societies of Southern Africa, women have a traditionally high status in society, with opportunities to become great leaders alongside, or even above, the men. Women often wield their status through control of local water holes, sometimes even passing down control to their female offspring. Thus water is not just life. It is also power.