Environmental Health Risks and Gender in the Karakoram-Himalaya, Northern Pakistan

Article excerpt

The critical role of women as managers of water and environmental health, especially in the Karakoram-Himalaya, has been largely overlooked in the academic literature. Studies of water resources, where available, focus on the functioning of irrigation systems in relation to securing and maintaining mountain "oasis" landscapes and agricultural systems (Whiteman 1985; Allan 1986; Butz 1987,1989; Kreutzmann 1988, 2000; VanderVelde 1989). That work has drawn attention to the history and viability of the complex social infrastructure required to maintain mountain agricultural systems. Of interest here, however, is something different: The gender dimensions of water and environmental health problems in the context of socioeconomic transformation. In this article I explore women's responses to environmental health risks that threaten child survival and the ways in which local geographies of gender influence the social organization of risk response. Over a year of field research, I worked in the District of Gilgit, i n the northern part of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (Figure 1). The fixation of so many researchers on crop irrigation, I have come to believe, overlooks critical dimensions of the hydrosocial environment, at least in this mountainous region. Among the missed items are severe environmental health risks related to issues of water quality, domestic and agricultural waste, waterborne disease, community institutions, and gender differences in issues relating to water use and policy.

The impacts and management of water and environmental health problems (1)0 are profoundly gendered in the Karakoram-Himalaya. A growing literature examines the role that women and gender play in mountain livelihoods and resource management in the Karakoram-Himalaya region (Bajracharya, Banskota, and Cecelski 1990; Mehta 1994; Joekes 1995; Gurung 1999). Farida Azhar-Hewitt documents the gendered relationships in mountain agricultural production systems in northern Pakistan (1989, 1999); but, overall, scholarship on women's engagement in struggles to respond to the harsh specifics of environmental health-related risks is minimal. Nor are the issues simple: In mountainous regions in the developing world, "in addition to their major involvement in agriculture and resource management, women take responsibility for food processing, cooking, carrying water, and child care (Byers and Sainju 1994,219). This is also the reality in the Karakoram-Himalaya, among the poorest mountain regions in the world, and one where wo men struggle daily to balance the competing demands of subsistence agricultural, child and family health, and community obligations (Halvorson 2000). A second concern is the responsibility of women for containing the childhood disease risks associated with contaminated water, inadequate sanitation, and lack of hygiene. Attention to gender can enhance the ability of families and local institutions to address problems.

Gender politics in development processes and outcomes are well treated in the development literature (Kabeer 1994; Oduor-Noah and Thomas-Slayter 1995; WijkSijbesma 1998). Highlighted are the different household roles of women and men and the influence of these divergent roles on responsibility, division of labor, and decision making. A debate echoes about how to address both the "practical" and "strategic" needs of women through development processes and planning (Moser 1993). Scholarship has criticized the "just add women and stir" logic of Women in Development (WID) initiatives introduced since the 1970s, arguing that they deal with women in isolation from the social relationships between men and women and ignore processes that lead to women's subordination and inequality (Tinker 1990; Rathgeber 1995). To me, gender is one axis of identity that intersects with other categories of social differentiation: socioeconomic background, ethnicity; religion, family ideology, status. …