March 22 is observed as World Water Day. With the global population steadily swelling, the availability and access to clean, safe water is not only paramount, it is a key concern for maintaining public health in an increasingly unstable world. Goal 6 of the United Nations’ 17 ambitious Sustainable Development Goals is to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. This includes achieving “universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all,” and achieving “access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all” by 2030.
Unfortunately, the world has a very, very long way to go. In 2015, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 2.1 billion people lacked safely managed drinking water services, including 1.3 billion who did not have basic services, i.e. an improved source of water within a round trip of 30 minutes.
Women and Water
It may be a coincidence that World Water Day is commemorated in March, which is also celebrated in many countries as Women’s History Month. However, women and water are inextricably linked. In most regions around the world, women continue to take the majority, if not sole responsibility of managing households, making water collection and management a vital part of their daily lives. According to UN Women, “in many developing countries, women and girls often carry the burden of water and fuel collection and food provision.”
Data from the Millennium Development Goals Report 2012, interpreted by the Swedish International Development Coordination Agency (Sida) in 2015, shows that women bear the primary burden of gathering water in 25 sub-Saharan African countries, taking on 62% of the burden compared to men, who take on 23% of the burden. Girls and boys take on 9% and 6% of the burden respectively. Overall, women and girls bear 71% of the burden for collecting water, and it was estimated that women spent at least 16 million hours round trip to collect water daily, compared to men who spent six million hours.
The burden of collecting water is heavy, not just because women spend more time on it. According to UN Water, women are also vulnerable to mental, physical, and sexual violence when they travel long distances, often on foot, to obtain water. This is the case for women in many developing nations, including India. The difficulty in accessing water is tied to the difficulty in accessing sanitation, with women suffering when sanitation is inadequate. When pregnant, women are more at risk of water and sanitation-related ailments. Women are also disproportionately tasked with providing care to family members who suffer diseases due to unsafe water or sanitation, UN Water notes. Moreover, girls have been known to leave school not just to take on domestic duties but also due to a lack of sanitation and menstrual hygiene facilities. Interrupted education, along with the weight of other unpaid work causes women to face discrimination when seeking work, and thus eventually leaving them economically disadvantaged.
Accessing Water and Sanitation in India
The Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), supported by the Freshwater Action Network South Asia (FANSA) met with members of marginalised communities in eight states–Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Gujarat, and Delhi. A WSSCC paper detailing the outcomes of these meetings outlines how existing WASH (water, sanitation and health) practices put women and girls at risk. For example, those who participated in the meetings said that they typically go in a group to a pond or river, or the fields to defecate as they feel more secure. Participants said that community toilets lacked privacy and were dirty and badly maintained, and lacked sufficient. They said that men frequently loiter near toilets to harass women. Similarly, women who bathed in open areas such as ponds or rivers were also at risk of being sexually harassed. Menstrual hygiene was also considered “taboo,” with an old cloth being typically used, and washed in a water body and then reused. More significantly, adequate menstrual hygiene management was considered difficult to follow across locations: in homes, at schools and other public places, because toilets, water and changing and disposal facilities were lacking.
Women and Climate Change
Even as women struggle with access to water because of structural and social conditions, overpopulation and climate change are exacerbating an existing problem. According to WHO, by the year 2025, half the global population will be residing in water-stressed areas. Climate change could result in more disaster events, such as floods and droughts, and, as UN Women has noted, the consequences of such events could include increased maternal mortality rates, increased child marriage rates, and the increased burden of fuel and water collection. In light of this, it is imperative to consider gender and the situation of women when developing policies and infrastructure to combat climate change.
It is clear that climate change is inevitable, just as it is clear that the world cannot afford to take for granted both the availability of water and the role of women in its sustainable use and conservation. The question then remains is how to ensure equitable access to water to those current lacking it while also ensuring abundant water for generations to come.