Insights and Analysis

Women and Water Security

March 21, 2012

By Kourtnii S. Brown

As we reflect on the state of global water on World Water Day 2012, measurable progress has been made over the last two decades, but much more remains to be done. Looking ahead, who are the catalytic change agents? The answer: women.

Women collect water in India.

In the least developed countries in the Asia-Pacific, women and girls generally have primary responsibility for collecting and managing water, spending up to six hours per day traveling as far as six kilometers to collect water, and often adolescent females are forced to drop out of school to assist in this household task. Photo by Geoffrey Hiller.

On March 6, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) published a report stating that, as of 2010, 89 percent of the world’s population had access to safe drinking water. This exceeds the international target set by the seventh Millennium Development Goal on environmental sustainability (MDG7) by one percent. Additionally, the goal to halve the global population suffering from water poverty was met five years ahead of the 2015 deadline. In the Asia-Pacific region, achievements made in India and China alone account for almost half of global progress toward the drinking water target over the past two decades.

While these accomplishments are commendable, sobering forewarnings highlight challenges for the road ahead, notably that:

  1. nearly 800 million people still remain without access to clean drinking water, the majority of whom reside in regions experiencing severe water stress;
  2. gender and wealth disparities continue to inhibit equitable access for certain populations;
  3. the leading cause of child mortality in the developing world is still water-born diseases;
  4. there are post-2015 sustainability issues in terms of water quantity and quality surrounding the achievements made to date; and
  5. the parallel target on basic sanitation will not be met until 2026 at the current rate of change (in China, India, and Indonesia, twice as many people are still dying from diarrheal diseases as from HIV/AIDS).

These concerns highlight important gaps in the quest to end water poverty and hint at the direct threats that water and sanitation insecurities pose for women and children. Some major obstacles are the complexities surrounding the future water supply-and-demand dichotomy. First, the highest population growth rates are expected to occur in the areas where progress on water and sanitation access remain the slowest – in the most impoverished urban areas of the least developed countries, of which women make up the majority of the poorest of the poor.

Second, since women and their families often depend on a woman’s access to water to satisfy cooking and household needs, it will most likely become more difficult to prevent adverse consequences in terms of health, education, and hunger from such water scarcity issues. Women across the world spend a disproportionate amount of time interacting with water compared to their male counterparts. In the least developed countries in the Asia-Pacific, women and girls generally have primary responsibility for collecting and managing water, spending up to six hours per day traveling as far as six kilometers to collect water, and often adolescent females are forced to drop out of school to assist in this household task. Ann Tutwiler of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says, “simple investments in water pumps alone could save women billions of hours a year,” which would allow them time to be more productive in their homes and their communities as well as care for healthier families.

Of further concern is the fact that global water demand is predicted to grow by 55 percent from 2000 to 2050. Meanwhile, the depletion rate of the quantity and quality of fresh groundwater during this period is also expected to increase exponentially. This means that societies will have to quench the thirst of more people on less potable water, while having limited water resources available for agriculture will likely cause food prices to become more expensive. Additionally, the effects on water availability and access due to climate change, such as prolonged droughts, decreasing groundwater tables, and declining food production, have also been observed to threaten women’s livelihoods more than men’s. In South and Southeast Asia, over 60 percent of the female work force is engaged in agriculture and food production, but just 1 in 10 of those women owns the land they farm; therefore the majority of these women don’t qualify to receive government benefits to invest in new innovations such as climate-change-resilient crop seeds.

The recent MDG7 progress announcement was made just before last week’s UN World Water Forum (WWF6) convened in Marseilles, France, where diplomats, business leaders, and scientific experts gathered to debate global water policy. On the first day of the conference, UN WWF released the fourth edition of the World Water Development Report, which painted this more accurate, yet grim, picture of global water supply in contrast to the MDG7 announcement. The UN WWF’s report warned that unprecedented growth in the demand for water is threatening global development goals and will exacerbate inequalities between and within countries.

A hot topic on the WWF6’s agenda was emphasizing the leadership role that women can play in using and managing water and sanitation resources to build sustainable progress in these sectors. This solution reflects similar discussions that concluded earlier this March at the Commission on the Status of Women in New York, where the theme “empowerment of rural women and their role in the eradication of poverty and hunger” recognized the wide impacts water use and sanitation can have on the development of a country as a whole and the well being of women in particular. These impacts are linked to better family health, higher household incomes, greater access to education, and improved gender equity.

The Women for Water Partnership (WfWP), which hosted a pre-conference and high-level dialogue at WWF6 last week, has been a strong proponent of water policy reform that takes gender into account. WfWP has created women’s networks throughout Asia and other parts of the world that play a significant role in lobbying local governments on reducing water consumption and increasing water supply. They also engage women in community-based conservation techniques such as rainwater harvesting, using composting toilets, and practicing home gardening techniques in order to actively engage women in work that makes a significant impact in communities. These efforts demonstrate that women are both ready to be a part of the solution and, in fact, need to be a part of the solution to tackle water security issues in a large-scale, long-term sustainable manner.

Water activists viewed last week’s UN WWF as an important step toward encouraging all stakeholders to set commitments at the Rio+20 Conference in June on sustainable development that promote more publically-owned and community-led water management. To achieve this goal, public and private solutions will need to integrate their efforts and create case-specific approaches toward water management in response to nuances in gender, levels of urbanization, specifics of water demand, and other factors. Engaging women in water use management is one sure way to speed up the process.

Kourtnii S. Brown is a program associate for The Asia Foundation’s Environment Programs in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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