Our water, our future: How women are pushing national change in one of Africa’s smallest nations
While the idea of an island may call to mind the image of a beach paradise, for the world’s 51 Small Island Developing States this is all too often a fragile idyll.
Small, often economically at the mercy of their larger neighbours and world markets, and at the forefront of the reality of climate change, many of these states face a raft of challenges to their ongoing sustainable development. And while it may seem counter-intuitive, among the first of these is water.
They may be surrounded by the big blue, but the reality is that for many islands water for drinking, agriculture and industry is a precious – and often scarce – resource. With changing weather patterns, increasing urbanization and growing competition for what water these islands have, sustainably managing this resource is fast becoming a top priority.
“Most Small Island Developing States are experiencing increasing shortages of freshwater as a result of multiple anthropogenic pressures and climate change impacts on their already vulnerable freshwater resources,” reads the UN’s 2014 Emerging Issues for Small Island Developing States report. “Water scarcity will have far-reaching impacts on sustainable development… and could even jeopardize the continued human habitation of some islands.”
In the tiny island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, however, people are pushing back. And it’s not all coming from the top.
With a population of just 200,000 people, São Tomé and Príncipe is Africa’s second-smallest nation. But in the fight for sustainable access to water, it is fast becoming a big hitter. With the support of UN Environment and the Global Environment Facility, the country has recently instituted its first Water Law (enacted in January 2018), which guides control and use of water with a view to guaranteeing sustainability and access for all, as well as a National Integrated Water Resources Management Plan, giving scope for all water users to have a voice in how the island’s water is managed.
And while water reforms might be coming from the capital, in many ways this story starts somewhere much smaller - with a river.
Neves is a small town on the northwest coast of São Tomé Island. While Neves is home to some of São Tomé’s limited industry – with a brewery, a power plant and a small port – most of the townsfolk depend on fishing, farming and the related processing industries for their livelihoods, making the Provaz River, which runs through the town to the sea, the literal lifeblood of the community.
So when the Global Environment Facility-backed Implementing Integrated Water Resource and Wastewater Management in Atlantic and Indian Ocean Small Island Developing States project – or Water 4 Islands – set out to help São Tomé and Príncipe’s government to improve the islands’ water resource management, Neves and the surrounding Provaz River Basin – with its diverse water users and reliance on both freshwater and marine resources – was fast chosen as a demonstration site.
The Water 4 Islands team undertook research on the basin’s hydrogeology and water use, then brought together water users from across society and industry to form the Provaz River Basin Management Committee – the first initiative of its kind in São Tomé and Príncipe.
The project team and newly formed basin committee held public outreach activities – from school talks to coastal walks – to build community awareness of water-related issues, but it was a local river clean-up that caught the public imagination.
Inspired by the clean-up, a small group of Neves’ women decided to make it a regular activity. Soon teams of local women were cleaning the river of solid waste as many as three times a week. The Provaz had found its new champions.
“The women decided that they weren’t going to wait for the government to protect the catchment, but instead mobilise every woman in the basin and take things into their own hands,” Water 4 Islands communication officer Geraldine Deblon says.
“They developed their own philosophy – ‘Our resources, our livelihoods’ – saying that just as they kept their households clean, they could keep the community clean as well.”
As the women’s groups grew – so did their public profile, with a wide range of media outlets, from newspapers to television, seizing on their grassroots approach to environmental protection. Soon even the national government was taking notice, with President Manuel Pinto da Costa himself visiting Neves to recognize the women’s initiative.
“I know that our clean-up work in the river basin will benefit the entire population of Neves and secure a better future for everybody,” says Maria Lucilia, head of the women’s groups involved in the clean-up activities.
“We are proud that our river is clean. That is why we are reaching out to other women… to join us so that we stop this habit of having one person washing clothes on one side, the other washing dishes and a third one fetching drinking water right next to the other two! These are not safe practices.”
As the project began to scale up its activities, convening other river basin committees around the island, the Ministry of Infrastructures, Natural Resources and Environment was quick to invite Neves’ environmental champions to act as its ambassadors – sponsoring the women to visit other river basins to share their experiences.
“Focusing on gender, and engaging women has been the catalyst for the whole process,” Water 4 Islands regional coordinator Daniel Nzyuko says.
“In São Tomé and Príncipe women are the ones who fetch water, who use the river to wash – so when you go to a river, it’s mostly women you see. Elevating women’s role and promoting women’s empowerment in taking decisions related to water and participating in public fora on water issues has been key to building public momentum behind local-level changes in the way water is managed.”
In a context where women’s voices are often marginalised, Neves’ women are breaking the mould, actively advocating for their interests and playing a leading role in the Provaz River Basin committee – where three of the 12 members are now women.
They are also speaking up on issues like pollution and sanitation – backing basin committee bylaws imposing fines for washing vehicles in the river and promoting the use of public toilets supported by the project in an effort to reduce the spread of water-borne diseases.
"Building public toilets was very important for us… to try to stop people from defecating on the beach and in the river,” Maria Lucilia says. “Fisherman and women use these same places to fish and fetch water, it is not good. People need to start using bathrooms to protect our common health."
With another three river basin committees now operating around the nation and two more under development as the Water 4 Islands project draws to a close in 2018, Maria and her fellow women continue to be an inspiration, from Neves to the capital.
“The biggest challenge is to distribute good quality water to the population,” says Carlos Vilanova, the nation’s Minister of Infrastructures, Natural Resources and Environment. “In order to do this, we must manage water in the best way possible. This project is greatly helping us in raising awareness and changing the population’s attitude and behaviours to keep our freshwater supply clean."
The Implementing Integrated Water Resource and Wastewater Management in Atlantic and Indian Ocean Small Island Developing States project (Water for Islands) is a $9.7 million Global Environment Facility-backed partnership between UN Environment, the United Nations Development Programme and the governments of São Tomé and Príncipe, Cabo Verde, Comoros, the Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles to implement an integrated approach to the management of freshwater resources, with a long-term goal of enhancing the capacity to plan and manage aquatic resources and ecosystems on a sustainable basis.
For more information on Water 4 Islands, contact Geraldine Deblon.
This story was originally published by UN Environment.