Gender, water and development: The multiple impacts and perceptions of a rural water project in Nampula, Mozambique

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Virginia Tech


Development organizations claim that rural water projects deliver a wide variety of benefits - from poverty reduction to women's empowerment. This research explores these claims in the context of a rural water project (RWP) in Nampula, Mozambique. From August of 2011 to July of 2012, I spent 11 months conducting ethnographic research in five communities where handpumps were installed as part of the RWP. The goal of the research was to describe how the water project unfolds "on the ground" from the perspective of men and women in Nampula and illuminate the social and gender related impacts of the project that are not captured in standard evaluations. In Nampula, water is closely connected to exchange networks, power dynamics, cultural traditions, spiritual practices, and social values. Gender roles are formed in relation to water and negotiated around changes in water access. Women spend most of their day in contact with water in some form, and through water practices women fulfill the societal expectations of a good wife and mother.

The meanings and everyday uses of water were not considered in the design of the RWP, and the handpump technology and community management model were not well suited for the socio-cultural context of Nampula. The plans for the RWP were based on a number of incorrect assumptions about "community" local decision making processes, and men's and women's priorities, resulting in a significant gap between what project planners expected to happen and what actually happened in the communities.

The impacts of the RWP rippled beyond the narrow range of economic benefits expected by the MCC, reconfiguring the meanings associated with water, disrupting social exchange networks, and aggravating social divisions. People who did use the handpump also describe the impacts in very different terms than those used by development organizations. This research contributes to theoretical debates about the relationship between gender, water, and development, and also offers practical suggestions for designing water projects that are more equitable, culturally sensitive, and sustainable.



Mozambique, Water, Gender, development