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Kusum Athukorala: Paving the way for women in water

Posted: 21 September 2018

Sri Lanka, Experience, Impact, Linkages,

Australia Global Alumni

Australia Awards alumna Kusum Athukorala is making a substantial impact promoting water and sanitation and empowering women in the water sector through holistic water management.

As a development consultant with a special focus on climate change and water, Kusum’s research and advocacy work in water resource policy, rural development, Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), and gender and water are recognised nationally and internationally. 

In 2013, Kusum attended the Australia Awards Fellowship on Building Climate Change Resilience through Integrated Water Resources Management conducted by Queensland University of Technology. The QUT faculty encouraged participants to continue to work in programs such as rainwater harvesting for enhanced water security and be innovative on programs such as disaster risk reduction and menstrual hygiene management. It also provided an opportunity to strengthen bonds between participant partner organisations and to understand each other’s interests and complementary skills, which led to the professional development of the participants.

Kusum Athukorala with the Australia Awards alumni who participated in the Fellowship on ?Building Climate Change Resilience through Integrated Water Resources Management? in 2013

Kusum Athukorala with the Australia Awards alumni who participated in the Fellowship on ‘Building Climate Change Resilience through Integrated Water Resources Management’ in 2013

However, water management was not Kusum’s initial line of work. Crossing disciplinary and academic boundaries from her 12 years previous experience as a university lecturer in languages and cultural studies to water resources management in 1992, Kusum says her love for reading provided the first introduction to understanding the need for gender perspectives in social justice. 

“Though I was in academia for over 12 years I was strongly affected by my first post-graduate employment, which was as a Research Assistant in Communication for the Status of Women Survey for Sri Lanka. It was the first time I had lived away from home; it was in a very rural area and had a toilet with no door, only a plank. It took me to the field, away from books, but strangely, it also reflected the ground reality, of things I have read in books before. All the time I was in academia I worked part-time on social surveys.  I keep going back to the world of literature for sustenance. There are always parallels. I think I can balance the researcher/practitioner/consultant perspective due to my diverse background and my postgraduate studies at Imperial College, which was on Managing Rural Change” reflects Kusum.

Kusum was elected on the first Steering Committee of the Global Water Partnership in 1996 and has since served the GWP in various capacities including as Chair of the Sri Lanka Water Partnership. Kusum has served as the Chair of Network of Women Water Professionals (NetWwater). She was also a member of the National Water and Sanitation (WATSAN) committee and the Coast Conservation Department Advisory Council. She also received the International Water Association’s International Women in Water Award and the Zonta Woman of Achievement for Environment in 2012. Her current advocacy work includes engaging marginalised stakeholders in the tea landscape ecosystems in Central highland catchments.

“Much of my work focuses around water security awareness programs for women, youth and children. Promoting climate change adaptation depends on successful behavioural change, enabling communities – women, men and youth – to withstand the challenges of climate change” says Kusum.

“Women, bearing their dual burdens are the foot soldiers of climate change adaptation.  They need to be empowered with knowledge through citizen science programs and strengthened with capacity building programs to enable them to face up to the challenges” she adds.

Kusum continues to work in policy and at ground level with a focus on Sustainable Development Goals 2, 5, 6, 13 and 15She aims to organise a Training of Trainers (TOT) in Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM). As a part of this initiative, an awareness program on MHM for health and education professionals was conducted at the Regional Health Training Centre at Kadugannawa, Kandy in July 2018.  Six other Australia Awards alumni members who were a part of the same Fellowship as Kusum also attended the program. “It was so gratifying to see the entire group still working with commitment and having a strong team spirit,” says Kusum. 

Despite the short visit, Kusum recalls her time in Australia fondly. She had the opportunity to visit the Brisbane Disaster Centre and learn about Brisbane flood mitigation measures and got exposure to be briefed by experts on climate change-related impact. Being an avid reader, she was pleased to stumble across a very old shop for pre-loved books (Elizabeth’s) in Perth when she visited as Keynote speaker for ‘Australia Water Week’. She remembers enjoying the scenery in Margaret River valley as well as the Australian wildlife, especially petting a kangaroo and carrying a koala – items on her bucket list.

She also remains in touch with the friends she made in Australia both on personal and professional levels, especially the Sri Lankan diaspora. Currently, she is also mentoring two University of Queensland graduates with their fieldwork in Sri Lanka.

Kusum is thankful for the opportunity provided by Australia Awards as it has made an impact on her work locally and globally as an activist, researcher and a consultant. This has also given Kusum a broader understanding of the importance of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) while pointing to the future work in Sustainable Development Goals.