Almost 800 million people in the world today lack access to clean water. Africa and the Middle East are the most water scarce regions in the world. Three hundred million people in Sub-Saharan Africa live in water-scarce environments and every year the number of people under water stress grows larger and larger.
Fresh water scarcity affects everyone, but no one is touched more than women and girls. The consequences of constrained water access for them are dramatic. In much of the world, women and children are primarily responsible for water in their households. Some two-thirds of the households that lack easy access rely on women and girls to get the family’s water. Girls under the age of 15 are twice as likely as boys their age to be the family member responsible for fetching water.
This may not seem so important but about 40 billion hours are spent carrying water each year in Africa alone. Those are hours that could be spent in school or earning an income. They also represent time when women’s and children’s health and safety are threatened. In Asia and Africa, it’s common for women to carry 40 pounds of water on their heads while making a trek than can exceed 20 kilometers each way, especially in times of drought. This increases their risk of violence and sexual assault
In 2010, this reality was brought home to me when I served on USAID drought relief task force for the Horn of Africa. I visited a Kenyan community where under-nourished women and girls were spending the vast majority of their time fetching water; their donkeys had died during the previous drought cycle, leaving them to hand carry water back and forth almost daily for their homes. The need for water to survive subsumed their ability to perform other basic tasks, obliterating any hope for an education and further undermining their nutritional well-being by inhibiting their ability to garden and grow food.
The broader implications of water scarcity can be dramatic too. It has been estimated that, 443 million school days are lost and 700 thousand children die each year due to water related disease and poor sanitation. Poor water and sanitation keep children, especially girls, out of school; inadequate sanitation and the lack of separate toilets in schools particularly reduces girls’ attendance, sometimes pushing them to drop out at puberty. According to the United Nations Development Programme: “every $1 invested in water and sanitation generates on average an $8 return in the form of saved time, increased productivity, and reduce health cost.”
While women and children are most burdened by the need to obtain drinking water and basic sanitation, they are often excluded from decision making about water. What’s more, if women were more regularly included in water management it could improve deliberations. They know a lot about the reliability of water supplies, where it can be found, and how availability varies by season. Their personal knowledge can improve water-related management. Community-based organizations that successfully involve women in discussions regarding water access, sanitation, and hygiene, are more likely to result in robust economic growth and improvements in the quality of life. Sustainable economic growth and development goals simply cannot be achieved without a focus on water and gender.
Now that USAID has released its new water strategy, we must remember that while easy access to clean water can have profound implications for the ability of societies to thrive, it can have particular importance for women and girls. Their lives and futures are often inextricably tied to whether or not water is available close by to meet families’ and communities’ basic needs.