Sunday, April 19, 2009

Women and Water

One afternoon while living in Nong Po village, we sat in a sala overlooking the Pak Mun Dam and spoke with Mae Jarun, an elderly woman and the longest-standing anti-dam activist along the Mun River. Her son died downstream of the dam only nine days before our meeting. He and a brother anchored their fishing boats near the confluence of the Mun and the Mekong and were sleeping there in order to do some night fishing when an unexpected release from the dam created a wall of water that overturned their boats. Mae Jarun's son was killed instantly. The dam officials we met with earlier told us that the communities were warned before water was released from the dam, but these men apparently were not informed before their ill-fated trip. It seems so unfair that the first woman to stand up in opposition to the dam in order to protect her community was the one to see a son die in this way. During our conversation she had a hard time holding back her tears.

Anthropologists have debated and theorized about the connection between women and nature for many years. In Thai language, rivers are called mae nam, meaning "water mother." The river provides water for domestic use, transportation routes, food for fish-dependent communities, silt deposition for rich and fruitful gardens, and multiple other fundamental needs. Likewise, women are vital life-givers to Thai communities, both physically and culturally.

The essentialist view of feminist political ecology states that women have a stronger relationship with nature than their male counterparts as a result of their role in reproducing and sustaining life. Others theorize that the closeness results not from an inherent or biological factor, but because of the direct material reliance on environmental resources among women of certain positions in society. These critics point out that some women in positions of power and privilege choose to exploit and degrade nature.

If women have a deeper connection to the environment as is argued by feminist political ecologists, then it follows that environmental degradation would have a greater affect on them than on men. The groundbreaking report released by the World Commission on Dams in 2000 noted that although little research has been done about the effects of dams on different genders, "large dam projects typically build on the imbalance in existing gender relations." The report notes that women are more likely to suffer from social disruption, trauma, and health impacts.

First, the loss or enclosure of the commons has drastic effects on women's work in many impoverished parts of the world. As described in Silenced Rivers, women are often charged with gathering materials from communal woodlands, streams, and garden plots. Because of this work, women may develop a different traditional ecological knowledge than men. When the commons are drowned beneath a dam impoundment and the former inhabitants relocated to new communities, women attempting to build claims to common resources in a new area face resistance.

Second, because Thai communities are traditionally matrilineal, the disintegration of a community due to relocation may take more of a toll on a woman than a man who is accustomed to living away from his own extended family. Thai women are not typically as mobile as men and therefore are able to sustain the rich local cultures of their communities. Losing this cohesion and sense of purpose often further marginalizes women who may have had little power to begin with.

Women often turn out to be the strongest proponents of sustainable resource management in communities around the world, perhaps due to their necessary intimacy with the land. Despite the profound effects of dams and environmental degradation on women, many are stepping up to take leadership roles in fighting back. In the case of the Mun River Villagers' Committee, women like Mae Jarun led the charge in opposing the siting of the Pak Mun Dam by building support and resistance through kinship and friendship networks along the Mun River. Hopefully women will continue to unify and sustain Thai communities while the mae nam they seek to protect are able to do the same.

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