A version of this article was originally published on the DefeatDD blog.
Access to clean water is critical for reducing risk of diarrheal disease and many other health challenges. Yet the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF reported that in 2020, one in four people, globally, lacked safely managed drinking water.
This is due in part to the large number of people whose only clean water sources are located far from their homes and the time it takes to collect water from those sources. According to a 2018 report by WaterAid, over 800 million people across the world spend 30 minutes or more to access water.
Gender norms in many low- and middle-income countries place primary responsibility for household work, including the collection of water, on women and girls. Gender inequities are based on unequal power relations at the individual, family, community, institutional, and structural levels relative to one’s perceived and/or personally experienced identity.
In many aspects of daily life, including water and sanitation, women and girls face specific disadvantages. WHO and UNICEF estimate that in 8 of 10 households whose water sources are off premises, daily water collection is undertaken by women and girls.
Inadequate access to clean water disproportionately impacts women and girls in four key ways.
1. Lost time
In places where inequitable gender norms place the burden of water collection on women and girls, the amount of time spent on this task can be substantial. A woman who collects the UN-recommended 50 litres of water per person for a family of four from a water source 30 minutes away from home would spend a cumulative two and a half months a year on this task.
This lost time translates into less time for girls’ education and women’s participation in economic activities. As the water scarcity crisis intensifies with climate change, more women and girls could spend even more time this task.
2. Financial burden
It costs money to maintain clean water points, and community-based water management can involve charging user fees to collect water from those sources. In low-income households, women’s economic power is often highly constrained.
While a woman often has the responsibility of sourcing food, water, and firewood for the household, due to gendered norms and expectations, she may also have limited opportunities to earn enough money for all of these costs, and/or may not be sufficiently supported by her partner or other household members to cover the full range of needs.
This already precarious situation could intensify if climate change results in even lower clean water availability.
3. Increased risk of violence
In the context of safe water access, violence against women and girls can take at least two forms as noted by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene.
First, traveling long distances, often on foot and unaccompanied, women and girls may be exposed to sexual harassment and even physical or sexual assault en route to water collection points. Second, economically vulnerable women and girls can also be subject to demands for sex in exchange for clean water if they cannot afford to purchase it from men who are managing water point access.
Without gender-responsive clean water interventions on a wide scale, both of these problems could intensify if women and girls must travel greater distances to clean water points and/or pay inflated prices to purchase water closer to home.
4. Menstrual hygiene barriers
Menstruators need clean water for personal washing, as well as for washing reusable menstrual products like menstrual cloths and menstrual cups. This fundamental aspect of safe and dignified menstruation is often insufficient at home, at work, and in other public institutions like schools and healthcare facilities.
Water scarcity can force choices about how water is used at the individual, household, and community levels. With menstrual hygiene already insufficiently prioritized in many cases, this challenge could easily become even more problematic for menstruators in the face of climate-induced water shortages.
Understanding and addressing gender inequities
Hundreds of millions of people around the world lack access to safe water where they live today, and water supplies are becoming scarcer with climate change-induced droughts and infrastructure damage. Furthermore, we can expect the high temperatures and more extreme weather patterns associated with climate change to negatively impact rainfall, groundwater, and other water sources in the coming years.
The poorest communities in low- and middle-income countries are often the least likely to have access to reliable water sources, and women and girls will bear the brunt of these extremes, traveling greater distances to clean water sources, losing time for work and school; becoming more vulnerable to harassment, violence, and exploitation; bearing added financial costs (poverty already disproportionately affects women); and being forced to manage menstruation without sufficient water.
Improved structural access to climate-resilient water (and sanitation and hygiene) must consider the needs of those whose current primary role is the collection of these basic needs for family use: women and girls.
WASH programs are also an opportunity to spotlight how inequitable gender norms can translate into negative health outcomes for whole families, especially children. Working with communities as they design solutions to the interlinked challenges of climate change, inadequate clean water access, and gender inequity will improve outcomes for everyone.
Gender equality today will truly make for a sustainable – and gender-equitable – future tomorrow.