There are enormous opportunity costs to fetching water – deprived from being able to earn an income, care for their children, or for younger girl's, get a proper education. And it is the entire family, and wider community, that suffers as a result
In a vast developing country like India with deeply entrenched gender divides, the words ‘water’ and ‘women’ are synonymous with one another. For it is on the shoulders of the women of the family, where the responsibility of collecting water, rests. And as water becomes more and more scarce, it is a heavy, and unfair burden to bear – particularly with its impacts exacerbated by climate change. As water scarcity, heatwaves and droughts become more widespread, women and girls are walking greater distances to fetch water.
Yet with so much responsibility for the collection of water, it is surprising then that women have very little say in decision making around water management. This remains primarily driven by men, despite widespread research which suggests that women’s involvement in the management of water resources and infrastructure improves efficiency and effectiveness, enhances outputs and improves sustainability. Clearly, a lot more needs to be done here.
The daily drudgery Indian women face
Collecting and carrying water are women's responsibilities in India. Water for domestic use like cooking and cleaning must be uncontaminated, and of course raising children requires nourishing and sanitary water. With a huge reliance on water, Indian women must exhaust limited time and impinge on their health to meet the needs of the family.
What does it look like on an average day for rural women? Indian women may need to make up to six trips a day to gather and transport water – sometimes averaging upto ten miles a day, carrying up to fifteen litres a trip. Women load jars on their heads to carry water, where the pressure, added with the distance, creates back, feet, and posture problems. Globally, more than 50% of poor women suffer from malnutrition and iron deficiency, so during the dry season, 30% or more of a woman’s daily energy intake is spent just in fetching water – energy they simply cannot spare.
There are enormous opportunity costs to fetching water – deprived from being able to earn an income, care for their children, or for younger girl's getting a proper education. And it is the entire family, and wider community, that suffers as a result.
Participation of all users & stakeholders in water management
To address India’s water issues, there is a need for the sustainable management of local water resources. For this to occur, there is a need for local ownership and regulation of water, where all users and stakeholders are involved in developing water management and irrigation programs, including—perhaps first and foremost—women.
The role of women is essential because of the fact that men and women tend to have different priorities and needs when it comes to water. Women prefer to have domestic water supplies and irrigation structures close to their house - allowing them to divide their time between productive and domestic responsibilities. Men, who are usually more mobile, do not care about the location of supply, so it is less important to them.
Additionally, women are also more often responsible for subsistence agricultural production while men are engaged in commercial agricultural production – once again creating different needs in terms of supply and water management. Women’s contribution to agriculture is often not recognised, so educating and empowering them beyond their traditional role of water collection and use, to water management, will have a positive impact socio-economically, within the household and society at large.
With many of women’s water tasks not part of a ‘formal structure,’ it means women are not drawn into community discussions with government and are often ‘left out’ of strategic planning and decision making. This is a serious oversight. Through their informal work, women possess special knowledge, experience and skills around water management. Water projects that overlook women’s central role in water management and exclude them, not only bypass half the population but also reduce the efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability of the projects.
‘Time Poverty’ and it’s socio-economic impacts
Of course, by not engaging women in water management, there is an economic impact also. Lack of access to an improved water source, translates to what the UN refer to as ‘time poverty’ for women and children. International Development Enterprises (IDE) estimate that Indian women spend 150 million work days every year simply fetching water, which equates to a national loss of income of Rs.100 crores. This impacts not just rural women but the entire rural and national economy. Just imagine the impact on poverty reduction if those hours could be used more productively, say on generating an additional source of income!
Sadly, women themselves are often unaware of their potential value in the management of water. They are often not involved in water user associations, public water management bodies, and water committees. There are stark gaps in women’s access to information and education, and a need for enhanced capacity development. It is important therefore, to ensure that the water sector becomes more gender aware.
For the relationship between people and water is not gender-neutral and there is growing evidence of the benefits of incorporating gender issues into water management. At the end of the day, policies and interventions around water management can only truly succeed if women are included alongside men, in every single aspect of water management – helping increase their self- confidence and overall status in both family and community, through control over water. Surely that is in everybody’s best interest.
(Pearl Tiwari is Director and CEO of Ambuja Cement Foundation.)