Females must carry as much as 50kg daily for each family member for drinking, cooking and cleaning.

Imagine going through your day without ready access to clean water for drinking, cooking, washing or bathing. Around the world, 663 million people face that challenge every day. They get their water from sources considered unsafe because they are vulnerable to contamination, such as rivers, unprotected wells, streams and ponds. And the task of providing household water falls disproportionately to women and girls.

Water, a human right, is critical for human survival and development. A sufficient supply of biologically and chemically safe water is necessary for drinking and personal hygiene to prevent diarrhoeal diseases, trachoma, intestinal worm infections, stunted growth in children and many other harmful outcomes from chemical contaminants such as arsenic and lead.

I have done research in India, Bolivia and Kenya on the water and sanitation challenges women and girls confront and how these influence their lives. I have seen adolescent girls, pregnant women, and mothers with small children carrying water. I have learned of the hardship.

Without recognising the uneven burden of water work women bear, well-intentioned schemes to bring water to places in need will continue to fail to meet their goals.


To empower women, give them better access to water.

Heavy loads

So, what is it like for women who live where sufficient and safe water is hard to get?

First, collecting it takes time. Millions of women and girls spend hours every day travelling to water sources, waiting in line and carrying heavy loads -- often several times a day. In a study of 25 sub-Saharan African nations, Unicef estimated 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. They lose opportunities for jobs, education, leisure or sleep.

Collecting water also requires tremendous physical exertion. The United Nations recommends 20-50 litres of water per person per day for drinking, cooking and washing. That's between 20kg and 50kg of water daily for use by each household member. And in many places, water sources are far from homes. In Asia and Africa, women walk an average of 6km a day collecting water. The burden is even heavier for women who are pregnant or are also carrying small children.

Many water projects in developing countries have failed because they did not include women.

Fetching water can be very dangerous for women and girls. They can face conflict at water points and the risk of physical or sexual assault. Many of these dangers also arise when women do not have access to safe, clean and private toilets or latrines for urinating, defecating and managing menstruation.

And if the water is limited, how will you allocate it? Women need water for hydration, handwashing, washing their bodies, and cleaning clothes and materials when they are menstruating to prevent urogenital infection.

In a study of rural women in Ethiopia, 27.8 per cent of those surveyed reduced the amount of water they used for bathing, 12.7 per cent went to bed thirsty and 3.7 per cent went an entire day without drinking water.


When conditions such as drought make water scarce, women have to travel farther and more often to collect it. Water scarcity has been shown to increase women's stress in Bolivia, Brazil, Ethiopia and Mexico.

And global demand for water is rising. The UN forecasts that if current water use patterns do not change, world demand will exceed supply by 40 per cent by 2030.

Focus on women's needs

When communities initiate schemes to improve access to water, women must be asked about their needs. Although they play key roles in getting and managing water globally, women and girls are rarely offered roles in water improvement programmes or on local water committees.

Many water projects in developing countries have failed because they did not include women. And their inclusion should not be ornamental. A study in northern Kenya found that although women served on local water management committees, conflict with men persisted because the women often were not invited to meetings or allowed to speak.

We also need broader strategies to reduce gender disparities in water access.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calls empowerment of the world's women "a global imperative". To attain that goal, we must reduce the weight of water on women's shoulders.

The Conversation
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