Endless water journeys

Endless water journeys


In Odisha, it is women who bear the brunt of water scarcity. The long walks to distant water sources is taking a toll on their health, writes Sarada Lahangir

WATER BEARERS Women in rural Odisha can be seen carrying massive pitchers full of water on their heads and walking several kilometres. Pic courtesy/WFS.

Twenty years after the UN conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, which recognised that the world needs to manage its water resources in a sustainable manner, and 10 years after the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights iterated that “the disproportionate burden women bear in the collection of water should be alleviated”, women continue in their endless trek for water the world over.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), almost one fifth of the world’s population (about 1.2 billion people) lives in areas where water is physically scarce. The unaccounted burden of water collection in such circumstances invariably falls on women.

Take Kasturi Pangi of Dumripadar village in Odisha’s tribal Koraput district. Despite being in her seventh month of pregnancy, she has to ferry a big pot of water on her head for at least a kilometre each time she goes for a refill. Says Pangi, “The water source is about half a kilometre away along the national highway, and every day I have to make at least three such trips to meet the family’s water requirements.”

The actual value of this effort is lost on her, as indeed her husband, Sarat Pangi, a construction worker. When asked about his wife’s daily scramble to collect water for the family, he casually mumbles, “She has to bring the water in time so that I can take a bath before I leave for work at 8 am.”

In Odisha, there are innumerable villages that have no committed source of water or have very poor water supply. According to Census 2011, around 35.4 per cent of families in the state have to travel long distances to fetch drinking water. A decade back this figure was 30.8 per cent. In other words, there has been an almost 5 per cent rise in the number of villages without adequate water during the summer.

Some districts are worse off. Every second family in the tribal-dominated district of Kandhamal travels more than half a kilometre to fetch drinking water, while 50.4 per cent of houses are not near any source of drinking water. Kandhamal is, in fact, the worst affected among the state’s 30 districts. The data further reveals that in rural Odisha only 7.5 per cent households has access to tap water, while 19.8 per cent depends on wells and another 66.9 per cent uses tubewells.

The day starts early for these water carriers and things get particularly harrowing during the summer months. “When the river dries up under the hot summer sun, we women sometimes have to dig a hole on the river bed to access water. These holes are known as ‘chahalas’ and we have to wait for each one to fill up before we can scoop out more water,” explains Malati Bag of Kirakela village, in Nuapada, another water scare district in the state.

Life is hardly easier for the women of Bolangir district which is, like the others, a tribal dominated one. Sabitri Tandi of Bangomunda block in Bolangir has to go to a water source about half a kilometre away from her home. Since she has to make three such trips a day in the searing heat, she ends up covering three to four kilometres every day.
What is generally not reported is the high price women pay for water collection in terms of their physical health.

Jamuna Dharua, 23, from Bolangir, has a tragic story to relate, and this despite having a well in the premises of her home. Last year, she suffered a miscarriage while drawing water from the well. Recalls Dharua, “We have eight member families solely depend on that one well for all its domestic use and on an average, we have to draw at least 20 buckets of water from the well every day.

I was in my fourth month of my pregnancy during a time when the water level of the well had gone down to 15 ft deep because of dry summer conditions. While I was drawing water, I felt a mild pain in my lower abdomen that I overlooked. A few days later, I had a miscarriage and the doctor explained that bending over at the waist for a long time while drawing water from the well could be one of the factors for this.” Ironically today her sister-in-law, who is pregnant, spends much of her day drawing water from the well.

Dharua’s mother-in-law, Kalabati, 60, is quick to defend herself, “Our women are used to this kind of work and everyone does it — my ‘bohu’ (daughter-in-law) — is no exception. Jamuna’s miscarriage was an accident. I don’t keep well, so I cannot help these girls with such chores. So if my ‘bohu’ doesn’t do this work, who will? My sons?”

Scarcity of water has other health implications as well. As summer wears on, the people of Bahadulki village of Rayagada district become dependent on the local stream for their daily needs and incidents of diarrhoea and cholera shoot up because the stream is contaminated by water from a nearby drain. Explains one woman who didn’t want to be named, “We are getting infections because of this water. When we get our periods, there is insufficient water to clean our clothes, and we end up with urinary infections.”

Explains Bhubaneswar-based social activist, Amrita Patel, who is familiar with women’s concerns in this region, “Generally, I have seen women in rural Odisha carry massive 15- or 20-litre aluminium pitchers full of water on their heads, while holding on to another 10- to 15-litre bucket full, and walking several kilometres. One hardly ever sees a man carrying even a small pitcher of water on his head! This is because, according to local social norms, getting water for domestic purposes like for drinking, bathing and cleaning is the sole responsibility of the women.”

What disturbs Patel is that public discussions on reducing the burden of women in terms of water collection only revolve around the need to reduce the distance to the source by provisioning a water source at an accessible location. While this is an important concern, she believes that the time has also come to break the norm that ensures that water collection is strictly seen as a woman’s task.

Ranjan Panda, Convenor, Water Initiatives Odisha, a voluntary organisation working on water issues, is worried about the future. Says he, “As the years go by, sources of drinking water are only going to get depleted, given our vanishing water bodies. This will make women even more vulnerable in the future. It is time that society becomes more sensitive to the issue. So far the government has never addressed it from a gender perspective.”  

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