Women pay heavier price for big dams

On International Women's Day, we look at how relocating to make way for big dams in West Africa has particular impacts on women.

Women such as this farmer in a village in Guinea, pictured cultivating a crucial 'revenue stream', often lose out when communities are resettled due to large dams (Photo: Mike Goldwater)

Large dams are displacing thousands of people in West Africa in societies where women traditionally have few legal or customary rights to the natural resources on which they depend.

More than 15 years after the World Commission on Dams recognised that women faced disproportionate costs from relocation, interviews with women in Ghana and Niger reveal that women continue to bear an unequal burden – and communities are losing out as a consequence. 

When communities are resettled to make way for new dams, they are moved to new houses and replacement fields. But the way in which legal compensation processes combine with customary rights means that women often lose out, not receiving compensation for lost sources of income, or losing control of family finances.

This can have knock-on consequences for communities, as children may miss out on education, or families may face food shortages.

Different roles and income 'pots'

Men and women in West African farming households traditionally play specific roles within the household. Men usually control access to land and focus on staple crops (yam, millet, sorghum rice and so on). Women may help with cereal farming (rice for example) while also growing specific crops, including groundnut, melon seeds, okra, sesame or chili peppers.

They weave baskets or mats, raise chickens and small livestock and/or run market stalls. They are also largely responsible for wood gathering, and fetching water. 

In many societies, women's revenue usually covers children's and day-to-day household needs (e.g. soap, water, medicines and so on) as well as supporting their own commercial activities. Each household usually holds two separate 'pots' or revenue streams (PDF) – one controlled by women, the other controlled by men.

Relocating resources

Some 9,000 people have already been relocated to make way for two large dams in Niger, and Ghana.  

The World Commission on Dams recommended that dam projects should promote the involvement of women and focus more on gender equity in relocation processes. But 15 years on, realising these recommendations is proving difficult.

Firstly, when households are relocated, the compensation process is largely determined 'by household' and therefore it is the man who is the registered 'beneficiary' of the compensation. In some cases they have taken the money and run, leaving family members destitute, or used the compensation finance to take additional wives. 

Secondly, the physical relocation disrupts women's livelihoods (PDF) as they lose access to the resources they depend on, such as grazing land, non-timber forest products, or grass for artisanal products.

In cases where land for land compensation is effective, male heads of household may receive new plots, but women miss out because they do not hold the land titles.

Revenue loss in Ghana

Women relocated to make way for the Bui dam in Ghana said they had lost income from collecting and selling fruit, selling crops from their fields and from fish processing (they are now over four miles from the new reservoir). Government plans for an alternative livelihood programme had not been implemented or access to land secured.

"We have [been] relocated here for about four years now and our crop compensations have not been paid. We find it difficult to send the children to school. We normally make a lot of money from the sales of cashew nuts but now all have been destroyed [flooded by the reservoir]… Even food to buy is a problem because there is no money. The delay [in compensation] is too much for us." Woman from the Jamah resettlement area by the Bui dam.

Women at Kandadji 

In Kandadji in Niger, where most of the first wave of 5,600 people (out of a total of 38,000) have been resettled, there were no drinking water pumps for the first two years of the resettlement process. This meant women had to spend hours collecting water from lorry tankers. Work is under way to put in pumped water, which will ease the burden. 

Women say they regret that they left it to the men to register the household assets before they were relocated. This formed the basis for the compensation scheme, and the consequences are only just becoming clear.

Different members of the household previously generated (and controlled) their own income. But household compensation was paid to a single individual. 

This situation is made worse as the market gardens promised for women have not yet been built, while men have access to rice fields. In one resettlement area women can no longer gather the grasses needed for basketwork. The small size of resettlement housing plots means they have less opportunity to keep livestock or run businesses from home. This disrupts the balance within the household. 

Women also worry about how to provide new housing for their children when they marry as they have less space.

Opportunities and barriers

Some measures have been more successful. At Kandadji, a scheme to organise opportunities for women to sell milk may have long term potential, if the project can help sustain livelihoods through the transition period. 

Some of the challenges faced by women stem from project design, while others arise from male-mediated access to resources or finance. At Kandadji, the African Development Bank proposed that men and women open separate bank accounts for compensation, but this was rejected in community meetings. 

As with many development projects the devil is in the detail. While all project documents that we have examined refer to the importance of gender issues, this has clearly not been enough to achieve the desired outcomes. 

The proposed ECOWAS directive on large water infrastructure, due to be adopted later this year, emphasises the need to take women into account when developing new projects and this may stimulate practical approaches to achieving gender equity on the ground. 

Simultaneously transforming both the social context (housing, water, social services) and the resource base (income streams for women) in a new resettlement site remains a significant challenge, especially in societies where sexual equality is still a distant dream. 

Perhaps one way forward is for donors to support more direct exchanges between communities affected by dams, with those who have already experienced adverse impacts sharing what they have learnt with their peers prior to relocation. 

Jamie Skinner (jamie.skinner@iied.orgis principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources Group.