Usually at this time of year during the dry season in northern Thailand, the Mekong River recedes, and sand and pebble beaches appear. Covering the pebbles, through the clear and shallow water, one can see the pale green kai, a river weed of the Mekong. This sight is a signal to women in communities along the Mekong near the Thai- Laotian border to wade into the water to collect kai, which they dry, feed to their families, and sell at the market.

But this year the Mekong levels surged instead of falling, rising nearly 2 meters, because of a cascade of hydroelectric mega dams operating upstream. The sudden rise in water levels prevented the once-abundant kai harvest upon which local women depend.

Women harvest kai on the Mekong. Photo: International Rivers

This experience, and the loss of vital river-based resources, is not unique to the women farming on the Thai-Laotian border. This International Women’s Day (March 8), women around the world who depend upon and steward the world’s freshwater resources are facing similar threats as they reckon with longstanding gender inequities in decision-making on water control and management.

Perhaps nowhere is the fight so dire than in the Congo basin, where plans are advancing to build the Grand Inga hydropower project, which if completed will be the largest dam in history. Congolese activists like Blandine Bonianga of the local group Femmes Solidaires (FESO) have helped to slow its progress and call global attention to the ruinous impacts of the proposed project.

According to an International Rivers analysis, the dam would stand to plunge the Democratic Republic of Congo into debt, costing the country nearly US$22 billion over the next 35 years. Bonianga and the thousands of women who lost their livelihoods, homes, and access to water to two prior mega dams on the Inga Falls are part of a last line of resistance. They’re familiar with the empty promises that are now resurfacing like the provision of electricity to those in the region.

In the most likely scenario, 88% of the dam’s energy would go to South Africa while local people in the DRC continue to face chronic lack of access to electricity. “Communities understand the threat to their environment is not only ecological and geographical, but also economic and cultural,” Bonianga noted.

The role of female activists and environmentalists in addressing threats to rivers is spanning the globe. In Chile, women are playing a critical role in advancing legal protection for some of the world’s most pristine, scenic, and free-flowing rivers. Such legislation would set significant regional and global precedent in pre-emptively protecting rivers, as well as the ecosystems and communities that depend on them.

This type of progress stands on the shoulders of female environmental defenders like Berta Caceras, who was murdered in 2016 in the struggle to prevent the Agua Zarca dam in Honduras. Berta’s fight to prevent the degradation of ecosystems sacred to the indigenous Lenca people remains a disturbing reminder of the perils women face in advocating for greater say in decision-making around natural resources.

In spite of these threats, women are rising to the challenge. This week, women from around the globe are converging in Nepal to chart a new course as part of the first-ever international Women and Rivers Congress. At issue for those attending is the irreconcilable fact that while women play a primary role in defending and stewarding water and other natural resources, they are woefully under-represented when it comes to their governance.

A scant 7% of all ministers of water and natural resources globally are women. Women are also under-represented in the private and financial sectors, and therefore in investment decisions affecting rivers. In the hydropower industry, women comprise less than 20% of the workforce globally, with few women holding senior management roles. The Congress aims to set a new direction for the future and empower women to raise their voices on behalf of our globally beleaguered freshwater resources.

‘Our success has shown that one woman can influence policy. Moreover, in civil society in China, women can sometimes be more influential than men. The river is flowing freely due to nature; it became colorful and spiritual because of women’

The tide is turning, but change requires new ways of valuing rivers and other natural resources. For example, the Nu-Salween River, originating from the same source as the Mekong on the Tibetan Plateau, is one of the last remaining free-flowing rivers in Asia. In 2016, plans for a 13-dam cascade project on the Nu River (Nujiang) in China’s Yunnan province were shelved after a sustained campaign spearheaded by journalist and environmentalist Wang Yongchen.

Recounting her experiences, Wang said: “Our success has shown that one woman can influence policy. Moreover, in civil society in China, women can sometimes be more influential than men. The river is flowing freely due to nature; it became colorful and spiritual because of women.”

On the Mekong, the kai harvest may never return as before. In this way, women’s traditions and sources of income become unrecognized collateral damage in the development of water infrastructure.

Dr Kanokwan Manorom, of Ubon Ratchathani University in Thailand, has spent years studying gender and development issues in the Mekong basin. She explains that the value accorded to increasingly scarce resources such as weeds, water and fish – fundamental to local well-being – continues to be determined by a dominant development model that views them as just another economic input.

“For too long, patriarchal and profit-driven development has deprived women of their many rights, aided and abetted by asymmetries of power,” Dr Kanokwan said. “It is time to turn things around.”