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Why is it so difficult to tackle gender in water user associations? A case study from Gansu, China
The increasing competition for, and scarcity and degradation of, water resources coincided with the emergence, spread and institutionalization of participatory processes, leading the World Bank to import the concept of the Water User Association (WUA) into China in 1994 to promote participatory irrigation management. The assumption was that everybody in the community could have an opportunity to participate and to benefit through participation and partnership in water management. However, emerging evidence from the field shows that this is not the case. Gender and social difference in power and influence, sources of problems in complex rural society, are active in the WUAs. This paper examines the reasons Water User Associations failed to integrate gender as a fundamental variable in participatory management. It relies on both literature and recent fieldwork in Mingtian County, Tianma Municipality, Gansu Province, China, to show that this interference with progress towards gender equity can be traced to the current, dominant focus on its biophysical aspect, to a male domain and discipline, to a narrow professional culture of natural resource management, a top-down system, a gender insensitive context, and to the intrinsic shortcomings of participation and the failure to recognise power issues in general. These shortcomings not only call for institutional change, but also for a change in the attitudes and behaviour of water management staff, technicians and professional, who need to be equipped with gender and participation awareness and knowledge, and for a creation of bottom-up system and gender sensitive context.