Women’s leadership is key to effective water diplomacy in the Middle East

“We see women playing a vital role in water resource management and decision-making at the family level as well as at the community level. However, they are very often absent from high-level water-related negotiations and agreements,” said Wilson Center Middle East Program (MEP) Director Merissa Khurma, introducing a Wilson Center event on inclusion women in leadership and water diplomacy. in the Middle East, co-organized by the Environmental Change and Security Program, MEP and EcoPeace Middle East.

Strengthen water diplomacy through inclusion and understanding of the local context

“Often we are asked the question, why women and water diplomacy,” said Natasha Carmi, Senior Water Specialist, Geneva Water Hub. “And from my point of view, as a practitioner on the ground, I find that the real question that should be asked is, how can water diplomacy be more effective with the inclusion of all stakeholders , mainly women?

Women are often involved in local conflict resolution and play a key role as mediators in the local context, but their perspectives are often absent from high-level discussions, said Martina Klimes, councilor for water and peace at the Stockholm International Water Institute. According to data from the Council on Foreign Relations, between 1992 and 2019, women made up just 13% of negotiators, 6% of mediators and 6% of signatories in major peace processes around the world. When women participate in negotiations, they are able to connect with their counterparts in a way that men do not, increasing understanding at the negotiating table and building a stronger negotiating team, Klimes said.

Women’s participation can also help to increase understanding and inclusion of the local context and local perspectives. Maysoon Al-Zoubi spoke about her experience as Secretary General of the Jordanian Ministry of Water and Irrigation. As General Secretary, she established the Highland Water Forum to push for the inclusion of local farmers and stakeholders. She ensured that the Jordanian government built trust with local actors and that their experiences were included in high-level and ongoing water diplomacy with Israel and Palestine.

Understanding local contexts is particularly important given how definitions of water diplomacy vary from county to county. Carmi shared the results of a 2020 survey of 93 female water experts from Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and Morocco. The study highlights lessons learned from their expertise and experiences as water experts. For example, in Morocco, cooperative efforts between national sectors and local communities are considered “water diplomacy” – water diplomacy does not extend beyond national borders. In Jordan, the definition of water diplomacy refers to the political context and negotiations with neighboring countries.

Removing barriers and adding support for women’s participation

The 93 female water practitioners interviewed are highly qualified, have the education and experience to hold decision-making positions in the public sector, and many hold master’s and doctoral degrees. Nevertheless, Carmi pointed out that the two main bottlenecks reported by respondents in the survey were the lack of support from peers, both men and women, and the lack of opportunities. Respondents also expressed the need for more training and support to improve their diplomatic and international legal skills. In response, the Geneva Water Hub is creating a three-year mentorship and capacity building program for 50 of these women.

Dalit Wolf Golan, Israeli Deputy Director and Regional Development Director of EcoPeace Middle East, spoke about the importance of removing barriers that prevent women from participating in water diplomacy. For example, helping with transportation and supporting a work-life balance through decisions such as scheduling meetings when childcare is available can help encourage women‘s participation.

It’s important to set goals for women’s participation and establish ways to ensure those goals are met, Golan said. EcoPeace requires that at least 50 percent of participants in its activities be women, provides training to increase women’s political participation, and features female speakers and experts as role models. Collecting sex-disaggregated data and conducting gender mapping can identify gaps that need to be filled. Improving target setting and data collection are areas where donors and other third-party actors can play an important role, Golan said.

Supportive male colleagues — male champions who understand the importance of including women — can also help women advance in their roles and succeed in leadership roles, Klimes said. Providing gender training to dialogue facilitators, who are often men, can help them understand how to be more inclusive of all genders, including women.

Removing these barriers and adding these supports is important for the inclusion of women and for the effectiveness of water diplomacy. Including women at the negotiating table, Carmi said, “is the only way to ensure that these negotiations will be successful, inclusive, sustainable and forward-looking.”

Sources: Council on Foreign Relations, EcoPeace Middle East, Geneva Water Hub, Global Water Partnership and Stockholm International Water Institute

Photo: EcoPeace co-directors at ‘Sacred Rivers & Climate Change – Exploring the Thames, Jordan, Indus’, London Climate Action Week, Tuesday 2 July 2019. Left to right: Palestinian EcoPeace Director Nada Majdalani, Jordanian Director of ‘EcoPeace, Yana Abu Taleb, Israeli director of EcoPeace, Gidon Bromberg

Mara R. Wilmoth