Scientific Publication

Water rights, gender, and poverty alleviation. Inclusion and exclusion of women and men smallholders in public irrigation infrastructure development


Governmental and non-governmental agencies worldwide have devoted considerable financial, technical, and organizational efforts to construct or rehabilitate irrigation infrastructure in the last three decades. Although rural poverty alleviation was often one of their aims, evidence shows that rights to irrigated land and water were rarely vested in poor men, and even less in poor women. In spite of the strong role of irrigation agencies in vesting rights to irrigated land and water in some people and not in others, the importance of agencies‘ targeting practices is still ignored. This article disentangles how public irrigation agencies either included or excluded women and men smallholders as right holders to irrigated land and water. This is done on the basis of significant case studies from Africa, Asia, and Latin America that point in both positive and negative directions. The general conclusions are the following. Rights to irrigated land are related to the site-selection and physical design of land-bound irrigation infrastructure. These rights are vested in the poor either by implementing a localized land reform or by directly selecting poor people‘s land for improvement. Among all potential land users in a selected site, water rights have to be defined. The poor are included as title holders if water rights are vested in land users rather than land owners, and in both women and men, rather than in male household heads. A common condition to get water rights is that one has to participate in construction investments. Agencies need, firstly, to open up this condition for the poor, also for women, and, secondly, ensure that poor people‘s investments are linked to rights. Parallel to vesting land and water rights, external agencies influence the composition of the local forums in which decisions on land and water rights are refined, endorsed, and implemented, and they influence the order in which project activities are planned and undertaken. Early inclusion of the poor in these forums and crystallization of expropriation and allocation criteria and procedures before construction starts are pivotal for poverty alleviation.