The Weight of Water

Imagine going through your day without ready access to clean water for drinking, cooking, washing, or bathing.

Jason Raisch

Around the world, 663 million people face that challenge every day. They get their water from sources that are considered unsafe because they are vulnerable to contamination, such as rivers, streams, ponds, and unprotected wells. And the task of providing water for households falls disproportionately to women and girls.

Water, a human right, is critical for human survival and development. I have carried out research in India, Bolivia, and Kenya on the water and sanitation challenges that women and girls confront and how these experiences influence their lives.

An insufficient supply of safe, accessible water poses extra risks and challenges for women and girls. Without recognizing the uneven burden of water work that women bear, well-intentioned programs to bring water to places in need will continue to fail to meet their goals.

Collecting water takes time. Millions of women and girls spend hours every day traveling to water sources, waiting in line, and carrying heavy loads—often several times a day. In a study of 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, UNICEF estimated that women there spent 16 million hours collecting water each day. When children or other family members get sick from consuming poor-quality water, which can happen even if the water is initially clean when collected, women spend their time providing care. These responsibilities represent lost opportunities for women’s employment, education, leisure, or sleep.

Water is heavy. The United Nations (UN) recommends 20 to 50 liters of water per person each day for drinking, cooking, and washing. That amounts to hauling between 44 and 110 pounds of water daily for use by each household member. In Asia and Africa, women walk an average of 3.7 miles per day collecting water. Carrying such loads over long distances can result in strained backs, shoulders, and necks, and other injuries if women have to walk over uneven terrain or on busy roads. The burden is even heavier for women who are pregnant or are also carrying small children. Fetching water also can be very dangerous for women and girls who can face conflict at water points and the risk of assault.

Now imagine that you have managed to get water, but only a limited supply. How will you allocate it? Women need water for hydration, regular handwashing, washing their bodies, and cleaning clothes and materials when they are menstruating in order to prevent infection.
But in areas where water is scarce, women and girls may sacrifice so that other family members can use water. In a study that assessed how water insecurity affected rural women in Ethiopia, 27.8 percent of women surveyed reduced the amount of water they used for bathing, 12.7 percent went to bed thirsty, and 3.7 percent went an entire day without drinking water.

When conditions such as drought make water scarce, women have to travel farther to collect it and more frequently, expending more time and energy. Global demand for water is increasing, and the UN forecasts that if current water use patterns do not change, world demand will exceed supply by 40 percent by 2030.

When communities initiate programs to improve access to water, it is critical to ask women about their needs and experiences. Although women and girls play key roles in obtaining and managing water globally, they are rarely offered roles in water improvement programs or on local water committees. They need to be included as a right and as a practical matter. Numerous water projects have failed because they did not include women. And the inclusion of women should not be ornamental. A study in northern Kenya found that although women served on local water management committees, conflict with men at water points persisted because the women often were not invited to meetings or were not allowed to speak.

We also need broader strategies to reduce gender disparities in water access. First we need to collect more data on women’s water burden and how it affects their health, well-being, and personal development. Second, women must be involved in creating and managing targeted programs to mitigate these risks. Third, these programs should be evaluated to determine whether they are truly improving women’s lives. And finally, social messaging affirming the idea that water work belongs only to women must be abandoned.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called empowerment of the world’s women a “global imperative.” To attain that goal, we must reduce the weight of water on women’s shoulders.

Bethany Caruso 09MPH 15PhD is a post-doctoral (FIRST) fellow in the Department of Environmental Health. This article first appeared in The Conversation.

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