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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Gender, Class, and Access to Water:Three Cases in a Poor and Crowded Delta


Water plays a pivotal role in economic activity and in human well-being. Because of the prominence of water in production (primarily for irrigation) and in domestic use (drinking, washing, cooking), conflict over water and the effects of gender-influenced decisions about water may have far-reaching consequences on human well-being, economic growth, and social change.

At the same time, social conflicts and social change are shaped and mediated, often in unexpected ways, by the natural conditions in which water occurs. The social relations of water are poorly understood.

This article introduces a framework for disaggregating conditions of access to water and uses it to examine three pressing questions in Bangladesh. First, extraction of groundwater for irrigation has made many drinking-water hand pumps run dry. Second, increasing use of groundwater for drinking has been associated with the poisoning of at least 20 million people through naturally occurring arsenic in groundwater. Third, the article examines some of the ways access to water has been changed by the rise of shrimp aquaculture for export.

This article highlights new directions for the analysis of interactions among water, class, and gender. The existing literature has tended to focus on the implications of gender analysis for government policy, especially development projects and water resources management, and for women’s organization. In this article we begin to sketch some questions that arise from a concern to understand the broader context of social change.

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