Her day begins before dawn. She walks over four miles on uneven paths to reach a hand-dug pit from which she fetches the day's water supply for her family. The water is polluted by flies, feces and feeding animals. In the dry season the walk is often treacherous as steep-sided mud walls collapse, injuring the women and girls who come, sometimes twice a day, for precious water. By the time she returns home carrying a water jug on her head that weighs as much as a baby giraffe, she is exhausted. Still, at night she must walk to the latrine, often in the dark, putting herself at risk of sexual assault.
This is daily life for many women, as it was for Nakwetikya from Tanzania, until a British-based organization, Water Aid, [http://www.wateraid.org] i nstalled a well in her village. "The situation here was bleak," she says. "There was no water and we had to dig pits to find some. My legs used to shake with fear before climbing down those holes. But there was no choice. If I didn't get water my family couldn't eat, wash, or even have a drink."
Lack of water and sanitation has an enormous impact on the lives of millions of women around the world. In a single day, for example, more than 200 million collective hours of women's time is consumed by collecting water for domestic use. And more than 600 million women live without safe drinking water and basic hygiene facilities.
The availability of water affects women's health in a variety of ways. They suffer back injuries, curved spines and pelvic deformities from carrying such huge water supplies on their heads. Ironically, they are often dehydrated. They are subject to bouts of malaria, diarrheal disease and parasites. And almost one-tenth of the global disease burden, which women primarily bear as caregivers, could be prevented by improving water supply, sanitation, hygiene and management of water resources, according to Water Aid.
Such improvements call for women to be at the decision-making table because they understand what is needed to make water safe and available. Projects designed and run with the full participation of women have proven to be more sustainable and effective. "As the main users of future water points women are best placed to choose the ideal location of a water source, and they have a great deal of crucial knowledge in the planning stages, such as where the nearest, cleanest sources of water are and when they dry out," says Water Aid. Equally, they say, "women must understand the benefits of good hygiene such as covering stored water, handwashing before eating or after defecating, and using dish racks to keep utensils off the floor."
Women's economic and social status is also affected by access to clean water in ways that are vitally important from a gender perspective. Young girls who no longer have to haul water can go to school and if those schools have proper toilets menstruating young women can stay in school. Women who are not burdened by family illness can work in the marketplace or in the field, adding to family income. Over time, they can assume greater responsibility in the community, as Nakwetikya testified to in a set of case studies published on Water Aid's website. "Since having this new water source," she says, "life has changed in amazing ways. My status as a woman has finally been recognized (since serving on the water committee.) Before, men saw women as bats flapping around. No one would allow us to speak or listen to what we say. When I stand up now I am not an animal. I am someone with a valid opinion."
The global challenges around water are serious and growing. The United Nations estimates that by 2025 forty-eight countries with a combined population of 2.8 billion people will face freshwater "stress" or "scarcity." Right now less than one percent of the world's fresh water is readily accessible for direct human use.
Growing populations and unsustainable lifestyles are adding to worries about water shortages. Women remain most vulnerable because they often work in informal markets and don't have the financial resources to buy water in competitive markets, markets that, in fact, are worsening water scarcity . There are also concerns about the privatization of water, which drives prices up and affects distribution. As managers of households women are the first to realize the effects of water competition. That's why it is so important that women's voices be heard at all levels of governance, ensuring equitable access to water in a water-scarce world.