Women’s Vital Role in Collecting and Managing Water

BY SAHER KHAN

In the Niger Delta, women, who have the primary responsibility for management of household water supply, are providing dirty water to their families, not because they want to, but because they have no choice.

According to UNEP and an Amnesty International analysis, the history of oil exploration in the Niger Delta has contaminated fisheries and polluted groundwater pipes and boreholes that are sources of water in communities such as Oganiland. Walking miles with buckets and Jerri cans to collect water from wells only to find them contaminated with crude oil, the women have had enough and are demanding clean drinking water.

“We cannot end poverty, improve nutrition or promote well-being if we do not have access to clean drinking water,” said Emem Okon, with WoMin, an African gender and extractives alliance that works with national and regional organizations of women, at an event last month called Women, Water and Well-Being at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.

Millions of women in the global south are responsible for collecting and managing water for domestic use and at household level. Because women are responsible for the household chores, caring for the sick and taking care of the children, they are the ones walking miles and miles to procure clean drinking water

Okon shared that story of the women in Niger Delta, her own community. She said that these women, whose primary responsibility is to procure water for their families, are visiting local government officials, village chairmen, to press them to provide clean water.

“The chairman, he knows what’s going on, he’s from the community, but women can’t fold their arms and sit around while their children and community members are dying,” said Okon at the event. “Women are coming together to have a collective voice against corporate power, capitalism and against dictatorial government.”

Okon was one of four leaders in the fight for water as a human right who spoke at the panel. She was joined by U.N. representative of Palau, Dr. Caleb Otto, Fordham University Prof. Christiana Peppard, Mark Gruin with the International Orthodox Christian Charities, and Meera Karunananthan with the Blue Planet Project, a global movement based out of Canada working for water justice. The panel not only discussed the importance of water and its cohort sanitation, for basic sustenance and progress, they also pointed out that lack of water and sanitation is detrimental to the progress and health of women.

“It is poor women from marginalized communities from the global south and racialized communities in the north or in indigenous communities, who are most deeply impacted,” said Karunananthan. According to a study put out by UNICEF, 62 percent of women and 9 percent of girls in Sub-Saharan Africa are responsible for collecting water and in a study by the World Back called Gender in Water and Sanitation it is said women from under developed and low income communities suffer the most from no access to clean water and sanitation.

Karunananthan sees water as a resource that should be attainable by all. Recently, water has been used as a tool by political and corporate entities to earn profit. Turning water into a commodity risks an increase in privatization of water, which negatively effects marginalized communities. The U.N. affirmed the universal human right to water in 2010 as a counter narrative to this growing exploitation of water, explained Professor Christiana Peppard.

“Water is universal but it is also deeply particular,” Peppard said, meaning that water serves people differently, specifically women and girls. While fresh water helps promote industry, agriculture, nation building and commerce, it is also is intimately social, political and ethical. Every conversation about water should begin with the most marginalized- poor women.

“There are many crises related to water and these crises have highly gendered effects; water’s burdens weigh down women,” said Peppard.

Sarina Prabasi, CEO of WaterAid America, says that she noted in even the coverage of the contaminated water in Flint, Mich. that a lot of the photos of people carrying bottled water provided to them by the community are of women. In developing countries, women carry large vessels of water that is often heavy and often body warping. Collecting water and bringing it home also means that some women and girls can’t work or go to school.

Women in some countries face treacherous conditions and difficult topography en route to collecting water. They sometimes leave very early in the morning before dawn and are at greater risk of harassment violence and sexual violence, according to multiple NGO’s like WaterAid, UNICEF and the World Bank. WaterAid contributed to the SHARE research consortium to produce a toolkit called Violence Gender & WASH that raised awareness on the various ways women are susceptible to gender based violence when securing water.

The lack of sanitation also has major negative impacts on women. According to Water.org a third of the global population lives without access to a toilet. When women don’t have a private or safe space to relieve themselves, they are more vulnerable to attack and rape. And while lack of sanitation isn’t the sole cause of that, it’s a contributing factor, according to Prabasi. Studies have found that in both urban and rural contexts, girls and women regularly face harassment when they relieve themselves outside, so they in turn delay drinking and eating in order to wait until sun down when they have more privacy.

Water.Org also states that globally a third of all schools lack access to safe water and adequate sanitation so when adolescent girls go to school, if there are no adequate facilities for them to use the bathroom or manage their menstruation, they’re severely restricted in what they can do. In many countries where WaterAid works, Prabasi noted that girls routinely miss school when they’re menstruating. On a monthly basis they won’t go to school for four, five or six days. This has a significant impact on their academic achievement and in many cases they start to drop out in high school or even earlier. The inability to relieve themselves safely and manage their menstruation has deep psychological effects on women too, rousing feelings of humiliation and pushing them toward isolation.

The panelists said they had hope that talking about the unique impact of water scarcity on women and other marginalized groups would lead to a push for greater global responsibility in managing water resources so that everyone would have clean water for consumption and sanitation.

Prabasi and Karunananthan both emphasize that access to clean water is not just an issue of the global south but that it happens in developed western nations as well, noting the water shutoffs in Detroit and the lead contaminated water in Flint, Mich.

“It’s the government’s responsibility to bring this basic need to people,” said Prabasi.

Karunananthan acknowledges that the public sector has its flaws as well in providing water to communities, but says that private water and sanitation services are worse. They are more expensive because they depend on maintaining profit margins for shareholders. When this money goes to shareholders rather then back in the system, the quality of services are compromised. Karunananthan states that profit motives also means that tariffs, already exorbitant for poor countries, need to be increased. This leads to water shut offices in lower income households, like what happened in Flint in 2015.

“Profit driven services cut corners when it comes to the environment and public health standards,” said Karunananthan.

WaterAid put out a new report on March 22 called Water: At What Cost? The State of the World’s Water 2016 that found that there are 650 million people in the world who do not have access to improved sources of drinking water and that the poorest people in the world are paying the highest price for water.

“Water is valuable because it is the baseline for surviving and thriving,” Peppard said. “It should be a public good for all people, not a private commodity for a few at the expense of the many.”

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