The untenable water burden borne by women, girls

The already inordinate water burden being borne by women and girls is continuing to worsen


Syed Mohammad Ali October 22, 2021
The writer is an academic and researcher. He is also the author of Development, Poverty, and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge

A significant proportion of the world’s population does not yet have the luxury of getting tapped water supplied to their homes, nor do these households have enough disposable income to pay private companies or individuals to bring water to them. The onerous task of acquiring water for everyday consumption thus falls upon women’s shoulders. Younger girls, elderly women, and even pregnant women, also take on this responsibility of obtaining water for their families.

Depending on the size of a family, several gallons of water are needed by a single household to meet daily needs. Thus, carrying enough of it can often take more than one woman or girl. Collecting enough water also takes time. In rural areas, women and girls walk long distances to reach a well or hand pump or other water source. In urban areas, women and girls often stand in long queues waiting for their turn to collect water, often from singular sources on which multitudes of families depend.

Unicef estimates that girls and women around the world spend 200 million hours a day gathering water. In 8 out of 10 homes without running water, it is women and girls who are tasked with fetching water. Besides the time wasted, and the physically demanding nature of performing this task, women and girls are often at risk of harassment, attack, or even kidnapping when they head out each day to obtain water.

The time that young girls spent collecting water is of`ten a contributing factor to lingering gender gap in education. Even girls, who manage to go to school, need to spend the rest of the day doing household chores, including fetching water, which can make them fall behind.

Once they grow older, girls and women take on caregiving activities of looking after the young and the elderly. The task of caregiving is also made more onerous due to the lack of clean and safe water within homes. While contaminated water is a cause of illness for everyone, it is women and girls who then must care for the sick. Therefore, lack of access to safe drinking water adds to the gendered household burden.

The already inordinate water burden being borne by women and girls is continuing to worsen due to population pressures, bad water management policies, and impending climate change. Consider, for instance, the case of Pakistan, which despite having access to three large rivers of the Himalayan glacier, is at risk of acute water scarcity. The country’s surface and groundwater sources are increasingly stressed. Droughts are also becoming increasingly severe and persistent. Yet, Pakistan’s agriculture sector uses wasteful flood methods of irrigation to grow water-intensive crops. Water infrastructure in Pakistan is outdated and in poor condition, which wastes a lot of water.

Article 9 of the Constitution of Pakistan enshrines the fundamental right to life and liberty which the country’s apex courts have interpreted to also include the right to safe water. In 2005, the Supreme Court introduced the doctrine of Public Trust which declared groundwater to be a national resource and tasked the government to protect groundwater supplies for the public. Yet, groundwater continues being exploited with reckless abandon by commercial entities and farmers with enough money to invest in diesel pumps that can suck water out from ever falling water tables.

The government first drafted a water policy in 2018, to address Pakistan’s water crisis. Yet, this policy has continued focusing on mega-projects (such as building dams) without paying due attention to integrated water management issues, preventing water pollution, or considering means to extend safe water supply to marginalized communities.

Pakistan is now amongst countries with the worst access to safe water, with an estimated 80% of the population being unable to access clean drinking water. As a result, women and girls across our rural and neglected urban areas are facing increased pressure of acquiring whatever quality of water they can access to help meet their daily household needs.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 22nd, 2021.

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