For Water Systems That Work, Look to Women

In many countries, women collect water and manage its use in the home, but they are underrepresented in decision-making about this vital natural resource.

When Meena Sankaran was growing up in Mumbai, her family had access to water for one hour per day via a water tank. Her mother would boil the same water many times over for cooking and drinking. They couldn’t afford a filtration system.

“Now I know it doesn’t do anything to keep boiling the same water,” said Sankaran, “but it’s a mental satisfaction that you’re making it somewhat purer for your children.”

By the end of Sankaran’s teenage years, she had suffered numerous illnesses: jaundice, typhoid fever, pneumonia, malaria, whooping cough, chicken pox, and measles. She lived through it and ultimately started a company called KETOS, which sells technology to monitor water quality in real time.

“I felt like if I’m going to pursue technology, it’s not going to be just to keep enhancing technology,” she said, “it’s going to be about technology making an impact. And for me, water was something that very closely resonated.”

In many countries around the globe, women tend to be the ones using and managing water in the home day to day. (As Sankaran put it, “Combine all the needs [in a household for] water and plan that in that one hour. That’s what my mom was, incredibly, capable of doing.”) According to a report UNICEF released in 2012, women in 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa spend a combined total of at least 16 million hours each day collecting drinking water, compared with 6 million hours for men and 4 million hours for children.

As the report explains, most households in these countries did not have water on their premises as of 2010. “In 71 percent of all households without water on the premises, women or girls are mainly responsible for water collection. In 29 percent of households, men or boys assume this task.”

Yet women largely aren’t represented when it comes to positions dealing with water, sanitation, and hygiene (which many international organizations abbreviate as WASH). Ayushi Trivedi, who researches gender and social equity at the World Resources Institute, looked at women’s participation internationally and found that it “is dismal, from community water groups … to the national policy level.” In 15 developing countries in particular, women accounted for less than 17 percent of the WASH labor force back in 2014.

Trivedi said that women’s contributions are often “limited to maybe a checkbox that is ticked … While it may be said [they are involved] on paper, it may not actually translate to action.”

That’s a problem, especially since researchers have found that water systems work better when women get involved in the decision-making. According to one study, published in the journal Waterlines, “global evidence indicates that women’s participation in Water User Committees (WUCs) has been limited,” but “their involvement in management has correlated with more effective water systems.” Another study looked at the economic and social roles of women in water-resources development projects in Egypt, and found that “the success of water projects is depending partially on the women [sic] role.”

Finally, a report from the UNDP, with case studies from throughout the Global South, reached a similar conclusion. When Brazil, for example, focused on fostering women’s leadership, “women involved led a successful process of environmental education and river and vegetation rehabilitation,” and in the process, “women’s political participation was strengthened and public perceptions regarding their leadership capability were changed.” There was also “increased community mobilization of people of all ages and backgrounds.”

Learn more at CityLab.

Kate McCartyglobal, women, water