Women and Water- a lifetime struggle

The empowerment of women and girls is not only important for an equitable society, it is essential to build stronger economies, achieve internationally agreed-upon development goals, and improve the quality of life of women, men, families, and communities.

The situation of access to clean water and sanitation in rural Africa is even more dismal than the previous statistics imply. The WHO (2006) stated that, in 2004, only 16% of people in sub-Saharan Africa had access to drinking water. Not only is there poor access to readily accessible drinking water, even when water is available in there are risks of contamination. When water boreholes are built and water sanitation facilities are developed, they are improperly maintained due to limited financial resources. Water quality testing is not performed as often as is necessary, and lack of education among the people utilizing the water source leads them to believe that as long as they are getting water from a borehole, it is safe. In many communities once a source of water has been provided, quantity of water is often given more attention than quality of water.

The grim reality of the global water crisis is that it disproportionately impacts on women. Throughout Africa women and girls are the main providers of household water supply and sanitation, and also have the primary responsibility for maintaining a clean home environment. The lack of access to safe water and sanitation facilities therefore affects women and girls most acutely. The implications of lack of clean water and access to adequate sanitation are widespread. Young children die from dehydration and malnutrition; results of suffering from diarrheal illnesses that could be prevented by clean water and good hygiene are always rampant with the scarcity of this vital commodity.

According to the World Health Organization about 157 million people in the Eastern and Southern Africa region (ESAR) are not connected to a clean and safe water distribution system, and thus need to use external water sources. Around 247 million people have no access to improved sanitation. In countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, well over half of the population has to practise open defecation. Poor water and sanitation, as well as unsafe hygiene practices are the main causes of diarrhoea, one of the main child killers in the region. Each year more than 250,000 children under the age of five die from diarrhoeal diseases.
girls with water
The burden of fetching drinking water from outdoor sources falls disproportionately on girls and women. When water is scarce, women and girls may have to travel longer distances to obtain water, which can expose them to danger. Collecting water consumes a reasonable amount of time thus considerably reducing the time women and girls have available for other activities such as childcare, income generation and school attendance. This work is also extremely physically demanding with women carrying weights of approximately 20kg. In fact the the total number of kilometres walked each day by the female population, in the course of gathering water for their families, is the equivalent of several times to the moon and back.

Girls often have to walk long distances to fetch water early in the morning affecting their schooling. After such an arduous chore, they may arrive late and tired at school. Being ‘needed at home’ is a major reason why children, especially girls from poor families, drop out of school. Providing water closer to homes increases girls’ free time and boosts their school attendance.

Faced with broken boreholes and limited resources communities are often presented with a dilemma, drink potentially harmful water from unprotected sources or boil it as a means of purification. In many cases individuals may not even be aware of the risks of drinking dirty water and even if they are they may be so energy poor that boiling water as a treatment method may not be an option; and when it is, it is expensive and time consuming.

Carbon Zero is working on an initiative to help rural communities have access to clean and safe drinking water in Kenya through seeking to develop borehole rehabilitation projects in the country. This will ensure that that women and the community at large are directly involved in the planning and management of water supply and sanitation programmes, and that hygiene promotion interventions are specifically designed to reach them. In addition – the work load for women and girls will be greatly reduced by improving access to potable and safe water from protected water sources.