Gender dynamics in transboundary water governance (Sehring, ter Horst, Zwarteveen, 2023)

Francesca Greco


Sehring, J.; ter Horst, R. and Zwarteveen, M. (2023). Gender dynamics in transboundary water governance: Feminist perspectives on water conflict and cooperation. ISBN 9781032057309 (Hardback £130)


Francesca Greco

Independent scholar;


Greco, F. (2023). Review of “Gender Dynamics in Transboundary Water Governance: Feminist Perspectives on Water Conflict and Cooperation”, Routledge 2022, by Jenniver Sehring, Rozemarijn Ter Horst and Margreet Zwarteveen, Water Alternatives,


If you are reading this review by chance and think that this book is not for you, that it is “out of your main topic of interest” or “not relevant to you” then these words should sound like an alarm bell ringing. Maybe you are part of the problem or, even better, you could become part of the solutions to the problems that this book raises.

The volume is a genuine call for changing current transboundary water management into a gender-transformative environment, challenging the status quo. You want to be part of that if you are part of the epistemic community of Water Alternatives.

The purpose of this book is to perform a gender analysis at the highest level of water-decision making (water diplomacy of transboundary water). It also has an overall higher goal: to move transboundary water management out of its present state of being a masculine-dominated and masculinized discipline, not only in the practice of it, but also in terms of study and academic production.

The majority of academic papers and studies on “gender and water” have been historically focusing on irrigation practices, women’s roles in agriculture, women and hygiene, and drinking water and sanitation, mostly at the community level or at the level of the households. It is time to enlarge the literature including in relation to gender and transboundary water, and this book does the job of establishing an authoritative milestone for this. The work is a precious jewellery box of cases and accounts; at the same time authors are self-aware that long is the road to have a clear and complete picture of the state of the art of gender roles in transboundary water governance worldwide.

Sociologist Lisa Brush wrote as early as 2002 that sex disaggregated data had been incredibly useful in identifying patterns of discrimination across countries and at different scales but she noted that comparative quantitative gender research practically never assesses women in their social relationship to males (Brush, 2002). "Analyses of women's subordination, as opposed to basic under-representation as measured by numbers and statistics, are especially difficult to obtain”. Brush claimed that the cultural, sexual, physical, and emotional imposition of male dominance goes unmeasured, unnoticed, and uncontested " (ibid). This book achieves exactly what statistics cannot achieve: it tells, explains, disentangles, and demonstrates the many forms of power dynamics at play around gender roles in transboundary water management.

Exactly because transboundary water management is a historically masculinized field for a series of reasons (coinciding with the intersection of professionals in water diplomacy and water management), in September 2020, IHE Delft hosted the workshop “(En)Gendering Transboundary Water Governance: Feminist Perspectives on Water Conflict and Cooperation.” The questions that sparkled from this workshop have been carefully collected and amplified in this collected book that forms a significant addition to the literature in the realm of gender and transboundary water, adding up to some rare papers (Earle and Bazili, 2013) and one edited book (Fröhlich et al., 2018) that tackled the topic.

The chapters all have a consistently high level of quality, and the collection as a whole delivers a helpful set of diversified case studies, all of which have a highly variegated but still consistent analytical framework that offers significant food for thought. The epistemology of the research itself is also very well questioned. Aaron Wolf, in his introduction to the volume, asks the reader if we need more quantitative literature in order to assess and process information about the importance of gender roles in the management of transboundary water, or whether we are dealing with a “deification of numbers”, still unable of showing what case studies do already show with sharper clarity. Despite the need to have more numbers, more sex-disaggregated data on gender in water management and in water decision making, I agree with Wolf that also qualitative enquiry is a complementary and essential piece of knowledge that should be pursued.

Part I (Rethinking Frameworks and knowledge) offers a consistent asset of theoretical tools, without the need to be an expert reader. The experience from water activism in Ecuador, the analysis of academic production on transboundary water in South Asia, a gendered perspective on the multiple scales of water conflict, and an invitation toward “thinking through networks” for a feminist water diplomacy form an all-encompassing cross-regional eagle eye view on the topic.

Part II quickly goes to the point by addressing the obstacles and impacts of mainstreaming gender in transboundary water management in recent and contemporary water negotiations, with two paradigmatic cases in the chronicles of current water diplomacy: the Nile and the Jordan River basin. Von Losslow assesses how, in the absence of a river basin organisation in the Jordan River basin, it would be of even higher importance to engender all existing lower scale negotiations, like for example around the recently failed Red-Dead project for which gender dimensions were “hardly addressed.”

Part III moves to the analysis of river basin institutions and related processes, with the cases of The Chu–Talas Commission in Central Asia, The International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine, and the Nile Basin again. According to the results of a series of interviews among the employees of the Chu-Talas Transboundary Water Commission the main reason why women were not getting top management positions was linked to unbearable travel duties that were incompatible with child care and a common bias defining men as better leaders, with a better attitude to command, while women were, according to the stereotype, more accurate in terms of analytical skills and “back-office” work. Interesting enough is the revival of patriarchal traditional and religious norms after the fall of the Soviet Union and how this affected gender norms among women and men water-negotiators and employees in the Chu-Talas Transboundary Water Commission on the rivers Chu and Talas, shared between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

In this third part, of particular interest is a must-read chapter completely devoted to the lived experiences of female practitioners from Southern and Northern Africa, Europe, South America, and Southeast Asia. Their views are collected through a series of one-to-one interviews conducted by ter Horst. Interesting is the interview with the Acting Deputy Executive Director of the Department of Water Affairs at the Ministry of Agriculture in Namibia, where the delegation to the transboundary river commissions shows up having more women in comparison to other riparian member countries that, sometimes, have no female representatives at all. The question posed by Maria Amakali to the reader is “there are no delegations with only women. When you come to think of it, why not? Especially where women and men have similar expertise and experience?”. She remembers how soon after the independence of Namibia she happened to be not only the only woman in her position at the Department of Water Affairs, but also the only black woman. This condition overlapped her gender role with other intersectionalities that are defining the perceptions of someone’s professionality as an individual: she remembers how she used to be asked if she was a secretary. Even worst, she remembers how, when she was asking technical questions on water projects, “there (was) a male engineer who will explain it to you as if to a toddler”, diminishing your professionality and the perception of your professionality in the eyes of others. Sadly, in water negotiation rounds, she also notices how “the point (she had) raised (was) better received if the same point (was) repeated by another male person” as if the same words counted less if it was a woman who spoke. The chapter goes on with the narratives on cases of water-issues-mansplaining during water negotiations, diminishing the role and the perception of the professionality of women experts among the negotiators’ team.

Other interesting cases are presented in the chapter: the ones in the Brahmaputra region, regarding water negotiation rounds where male majority was not giving women the chance to speak; other cases where women with the same expertise than men would not emerge to the top-management positions because women were perceived as workers who could not manage both home and office duties. Another interesting bias reported in the chapter is the one linked to women as the ones “bringing more peace and cooperation” to the point that “many say that if transboundary dialogues are facilitated by women, it may bring more cooperation". This position could be considered the typical “essentialist” interpretation of the role of women in society, in a vision where women are gentle, closer to nature, loving and caring human beings, associated to a soft (and frequently weak) diplomatic skills, instead of people naturally inured to warfare and conflictual situations (typically men) (Towns, 2020).

Another interesting point regarding the many “intersectionalities” that shape gender roles in transboundary water management institutions can be found in the interview of Heide Jekel, Head of the Division “Cooperation in International River Basins, Freshwater Management Conventions, International Freshwater Protection Law” in Germany, who asserts that “in the end, when you are in an organisation for a longer period, it does not matter whether you are a man or a woman. For newcomers, yes. But my feeling is that gender becomes more irrelevant the longer you are in an organisation”. Age, in this case, is considered the intersectionality factor that provides women with more authority in their work as water professionals, compared to the “new comers”.  The chapter also gives space to Nadia Gefoun, a water diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sudan, who thinks her career and her example could inspire other countries in the MENA region in a positive way.

However, though the goal of the chapter is not at all an attempt to draw generalisable conclusions, the main message is well delivered when the last interviewee describes “disrespectful behaviour towards women in different situations, such as in technical meetings, basin committee reunions, or public audiences. Usually, disrespectful conduct arises when a woman presents a point of view that contrasts with the consolidated position of a group or a particular individual. The reaction is to offend and discredit her in a personal way, rather than to present arguments against her position. Young women are most often the targets of this type of action”, reinforcing the bias toward younger water professionals.

The concluding chapter authored by the editors

One emerging point of this practitioner’s review is what editors call a “hierarchy of knowledge” present
in the water sector. At the top of this hierarchy engineering and hydrology score the highest level, over other disciplines such as economy, biology, social sciences down to local knowledge. At present, the literature gap in gender and transboundary water is still huge, in terms of quantitative information and basic statistics but also qualitative studies. Gender roles in water diplomacy and conflict prevention and resolution is still not addressed in the management of current river basin organisations, despite many policy papers and legislative production. This book represents a prominent contribution to filling this gap. Most importantly, the volume uncovers how much work is still required to achieve a higher level of awareness regarding current biases, normalized narratives that are still gender blind, and the need to dismantle current male-dominated paradigms of transboundary water management.

Since masculinity and different forms of masculinities are also analysed and classified in the book, if you are a male water professional reader you could find it interesting to see how you “score” and how you place yourself in the challenging task of being part of the solution.

If you are a woman water professional you will find this book to be “the story of your life”.

Being aware that gender does not coincide with the term “women” and that genders are not always binary items, the authors beg for being pardoned if the primary focus of the book reverts around cisgender individuals discussions and related gender roles. They are perfectly aware of the gap and, frankly, no one can condemn them. It is time for more books like this to come in the future; they will possibly give additional space for the many other intersectionalities of gender(s) roles (including non-binarity of individuals), race, class, religious divides, disability, age. The journey has just started, in a massive and multifaceted way, uncovering the many realities of gender roles and their power dynamics in transboundary water management.


Brush, L. D. (2002). Changing the subject: Gender and welfare regime studies. Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society9(2), 161-186.

Earle, A., & Bazilli, S. (2013). A gendered critique of transboundary water management. Feminist Review103(1), 99-119.

Fröhlich, C., Gioli, G., Cremades, R., & Myrttinen, H. (Eds.). (2018). Water security across the gender divide. Springer International Publishing.

Towns, A. E (2020) ‘‘Diplomacy is a feminine art’: Feminised figurations of the diplomat’, Review of International Studies, vol. 46, no 5, pp. 573–593.


Additional Info

  • Authors: Sehrin, ter Horst, Zwarteveen
  • Year of publication: 2023
  • Publisher: Routledge
  • Reviewer: Francesca Greco
  • Subject: Water governance, Transboundary waters, Equity
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English