Water sits at the heart of our world and is a central tenet across the breadth of all the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Access to clean water and sanitation is not just a stand-alone objective (SDG 6); it is a pre-requisite for achieving many of the SDGs, including poverty alleviation (SDG 1), hunger relief (SDG 2), health and well-being (SDG 3), a quality education (SDG 4) and affordable and economic development (SDG 9).
In addition, we must look at water through the lens of gender equality (SDG 5). There can be no greater constituency impacted by water-related issues and the SDGs than women. It is time for women not only to advise but to lead efforts in addressing the testing complexities of water resource management.
Women are routinely exposed to the hazards and diseases associated with dirty drinking water and waste water as the principal bread winner of a family, the principal carer and principal waste manager. Such arduous responsibilities make women uniquely placed to be the standard bearers of safe water management and the frontline advocates in changing behaviors and addressing root causes of water scarcity and water-related diseases.
It is well documented that in many societies women are the principal economic actors. For example, in Africa women are the mainstay of the continent’s workforce. It is estimated that 70% of all labor in Africa’s largest industrial sector, agriculture, are women. Agriculture amounts to as much as 30% of the continent’s aggregate gross domestic product (GDP). It also happens to be the most water-intensive industry sector for Africa. Much of farming in Africa is fragmented. An estimated 85% of Africa’s farms occupy less than two hectares, and most of that is small-scale informal farming. With 80% of its water resources used in agriculture, sound management of that sector in particular is key, and women have a unique position to influence successful water resource management.
It is a similar story in another mainstay of the African economy – mining. Another water-intensive industry, it is estimated that at least 20% of the sector comprises informal, artisanal mines. Women make up at least half of the workforce, often working in precarious conditions, many as indentured labor. Research in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) undertaken by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Denis Mukwege highlights the correlation between women, mining and an increase in sexual violence. Similarly, women are highly influential in water management across a range of industry sectors.
Back at home, women continue to be the main determinants of domestic water usage throughout the world. As wives, mothers and daughters, women are the main collectors and managers of a family’s water use. In households where safe drinking water is not available, women tend to be responsible for the collecting of water and bringing it back to the home, often over many miles on foot. How water is then used domestically also falls to women. In short, domestic water resource management is profoundly influenced by women, especially when it comes to grey water and waste.
At the same time, it is estimated 2.4 billion people lack access to reliable sanitation. For women, it is particularly challenging. In informal settlements, where 25% of the world’s population live, finding a suitable place to go to the toilet is especially problematic for women, causing risks related to personal security, embarrassment and hygiene. Again, the burden of the management of human waste falls to women, as principal carer of households and children.
It is estimated that over 800,000 children under the age of five die from diarrhea each year. Unsafe drinking water and a lack of water for hygiene and sanitation contribute to approximately 88% of deaths from diarrheal diseases. While the problem is significant in cities, especially in informal settlements, two-thirds of women and their children without access to decent sanitation are in rural communities.
While the decision-making processes for water management tend to remain in the hands of men, with women so exposed to the hazards and perils of poor access to safe water and handling of grey water and human waste, they can make a huge impact in four key areas.
First, women represent a reservoir of knowledge. Data are key. Harnessing the information that these frontline water managers collectively hold would be extremely powerful.
Second, as the frontline users, women have a unique understanding of the frailties of systems and the societies they serve. This affords considerable scope for innovative training approaches and cultural adoption, especially in gaining social acceptance of safe wastewater handling.
Third, women can make a deeply meaningful contribution as researchers in the scientific study of water and sanitation. Hydrology and water engineering and sciences have attracted too few women. A better gender balance in the water sector is long overdue. It is high time that the water sector harnesses that potential.
Lastly, collectively women are the most powerful advocacy force. The complexities of water resource management can thwart even the most mature governments and their leaders. Women have a unique position to galvanize political will and drive forward much needed government investment to help deliver safe drinking water to the 700 million people who do not currently have access. In all these ways, women need to be part of the decision-making process for better water management.
It is a given that expansion of water investment and infrastructure has a net benefit to the economy and society as a whole. This is stimulated in no small part by unleashing the potential of women as the principal economic actors and stewards of a society’s well-being. After all, the well-being of a woman has a direct correlation with increased household expenditure, education, opportunity and productivity, and as such contributes to the achievement of many SDGs.