Women, Water, Culture and Education: Official Side Event of The UN 2023 Water Conference 

Wednesday, March 22, 2023 

Women, Water, Culture and Education_UN Water Conference side event_22 March 2023

Reflections on Women, Water, Culture and Education was the subject of the 3/23 side event of the UN 2023 Water Conference, organized and moderated by Ruth Richardson, Secretary-General for the International Network of Liberal Women and NGO Delegate, Member and Advisor UNECE W.

Discussions took place at Columbia University’s Center for Buildings, Infrastructure and Public Space. Opening remarks from Ruth included the need for women leaders in water management. She added that more youthful voices were also need in water sector decision-making, and asked “How can we provide young girls and boys a better education about water issues, and get these girls into school?”

Rick Bell, who represented the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization along with Anna Rubbo, quoted from Rachel Carson, who wrote in The Sea Around Us (1951) that “It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist, the threat is rather to life itself. He also quoted Ms. Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) to the effect that “Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world.” He suggested changing the word “species” to “gender.” 

The program addressed the need for women leaders at all levels of society, but particularly in water utilities, government water agencies, and international and regional water institutions so as to reduce the gender deficit in water leadership. In addition the program addressed the importance of having safe water and sanitation in schools worldwide where the next generation of leaders are being educated.

The principal organizing institution was the International Network of Liberal Women (INLW) in partnership with UNESCO Chair Water Ports and Historic Cities • IHE Delft Institute for Water Education • Dutch Water Authority Rijnland • Drinkable Rivers • United Nations Economic Commission for Europe UNECE • Womenvai • World Federation of Engineering Organizations WFEO • Erasmus University Rotterdam • Columbia Center for Buildings, Infrastructure and Public Space • and the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization (CSU).

Program Organizer Ruth Richardson with Lorette Douzals and Bharti Kannan

Ms. Bharti Kannan from India is the founder of Boondh concentrating on issues of menstrual health. She described how Indian culture castigates women during menstruation as ‘impure.’ She described how her organization engages with local sanitation workers to challenge complex perceptions and misconceptions about drainage to the rivers of India, including the Ganges.

Ms. Lorette Douzals from France is an Integrated Water Resources Management Expert and a graduate of an Engineering School with a Master’s degree in Agronomy, and a specialization in Water Governance. She has been working for BRL Ingénierie for the last four years. She described the situation in Senegal, where she has been since January of 2021, working to integrate water management projects. She spoke of how she has been fighting for more inclusion of youth and women in decision-making.

Giovanna Tiboni and Gaetano Casale

Ms. Giovanna Tiboni from Brazil is a civil engineer working on water projects. She is a graduate of the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), a specialist in Environment and Sustainability from Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV) and currently a Master’s candidate in Water Resources Management at the University of Southampton. Giovanna is the Co-founder of Qualy Metric, a consulting company that develops projects in water resource management, environmental sanitation and sustainable development. She spoke about not knowing, while in school, about the large numbers of people who don’t have access to clean water or sanitation. She shared a story about working with a team of four women and one man that was able to rethink their project and bring new ideas and use of information technology. She said “We have to bring women to the table because we have different solutions. We have to understand the global situation because it is different from country to county, different from India to Brazil.” She added “We have to understand why we don’t have women in these places of decision-making” and concluded with “We have power as women and we can be in these places, bringing something to the table and adding something to the discussion.”

Ms. Li An Phoa works with the Drinkable Rivers group in The Netherlands. The organization works towards a world with drinkable rivers by raising awareness and mobilizing people for action. It organizes inspiring river walks, citizen science and action communities like Mayors for Drinkable Rivers. The 1000km by Li An  along the Meuse River has been featured in a documentary and a book will appear in in September of 2023. She spoke of how great it was to be in a smaller room than those of the conference plenaries, the small room allowing for a kind of intimacy. She said “I work with rivers from source to sea, looking at watersheds and the contexts that lead to drinkable rivers, meaning that all our actions are healthy and balanced, rather than being focused on economic development.” She spoke about the need to track progress, and local monitoring of rivers in 17 countries. Li An concluded her remarks by talking about creating action communities with the Coalition of the Willing, joining forces to see how shared actions can lead to drinkable rivers.

Ms. Hilde Senema from The Netherlands is a historian, interested in business involvement in our daily lives. She is a freelance writer with a weekly column in the Financial Newspaper and a doctoral candidate at Erasmus University in Rotterdam doing research on the reconstruction of that port city. She spoke of the need to value water from a human perspective and to grow networks to connect people to tools and to water capacity as well as connecting policy makers to different ways of thinking about water. Activating Waterworks for sustainability asks “What is water? Where can you find water?” The answers are “Water is everywhere. Water is in our daily life.” She asked “How can you empower people to get to know their water systems again?” To conclude she showed a game her group created called Water Values, saying that “it is a fun way to address issues that are very serious” and “We need to work together to be able to win the game.” 

Ms. Queenie Lin is a PhD candidate from Taiwan, now living in The Netherlands and also working with Waterworks. She is described as “a customer success leader with a value-centric approach to customer retention and expansion strategy” with “expertise in leading complex SaaS implementations and client engagements, managing global cross-functional teams, driving process improvements, and executing strategic initiatives.” She spoke of irrigation systems in Taiwan where her grandfather, a farmer, served as a water expert. She noted that “in East Asia, women have a lot of opportunities for education and that women are in charge of the systems of the household, but are not often seen as experts.” She added “Now we are thinking that we are rewriting history so that it is not just about men, men building canals or opening water systems.” She showed a copy of the Waterworks document called Blue Papers, which presents methodologies and case studies.

Ms. Anita Soina from Kenya is the founder of the Soina Foundation. She is a Kenyan environmental activist from the Maasai community. Anita is the author of The Green War and the founder of Spice Warriors, a group that advocates for climate change in Kenya. Anita is currently the Youth Champion of the United Nations-hosted Sanitation and Water for All global partnership, advocating for water, sanitation and hygiene for all. She showed a four-minute-long video about the Olekemunga School, in Oltepesi, Kenya, which received funding from her foundation. The video had been presented, also, at the opening of the Water Conference. She said that the school in the  video had not had water for seven months but added that “When you talk to the children you see their aspirations, to be a nurse, to know best how to help. The children see hope.” The video narration echoes Anita’s optimism, saying “ The children come to school because they have hope. Their hope is education.”

Queenie Lin, Hilde Senema and Anita Soina

Interactive discussion followed between those who had presented their work, and others attending. Li An’s positive conclusion was that “You have to compost hope” to which she added that she could counter despair by thinking of those at the table today. Ruth thanked all the participants and said her takeaways were that “we have to raise our women’s voices” and continue to help each other.

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