Women and water, the inhuman nexus

Even though it is mid-November, there is no sign of winter having arrived. The sun beats down on Sakina and Aminabai of Bera Hadapar village in Kutch District in Gujarat as they make their fourth trip to the only well close to the village that has potable water. Three pots of varying sizes rest confidently on their heads, knowing that their chances of dropping off are small, considering the hours of practice that the two women have, carrying them around.

Sakina says she spends seven hours of her day collecting water. For those interested in figures, Sakina and Aminabai walk to the village well, which is around 1.5 km away from their homes, 10 times a day, and carry 25 litre of water back each time.  That totals to 15 km per person and 250 litres of water per day!  “At the end of each day, my neck hurts, my limbs ache and I am too tired to even cook. I don’t know what it means to see or do anything that is not related to water,” says Aminabai.

There is no resentment, just acceptance. They are just two among millions of other women and girls around the world who spend most of their waking hours worrying about water; carrying water; fighting over water; becoming victims of domestic violence because of water; or just coping without water.

“Water makes or breaks a woman’s life. Without it, a woman’s life is equal to nought,” says Ramaben who lives in a city slum, and has spent more than half of her life of 25 years just collecting water.  She compares herself to a frog in a well and says she knows nothing of life other than what happens during her numerous trips to the slum tap and back. Every container in her house, small or big is filled with water.

She says with a wry smile on her face, “Even when we go for weddings and other functions, we carry a pot with us to bring back some water.” Her statement bears testimony to the tyranny of a water-deprived life.

According to Water.org, across the world, 200 million work hours are consumed every day by women collecting water for their families. This is the time which they might have otherwise spent getting education, working to generate income, tending to children, or probably just pursuing their hobbies. The world has completely lost out on the productivity of a large section of its population by failing to provide basic infrastructure required for life and survival. 

In the process, women, whether urban or rural poor, have also been deprived of basic human rights such as access to healthcare, education and others, simply because water consumes their life hours in a manner that precludes all other activities. Ironically, a short distance from the village well one sees a long row of huge modern windmills generating electricity that will benefit distant urban populations. The uni-dimensional lives that women like Sakina or Ramaben lead will never touch them. Development, real or skewed, one wonders.

While governments harness water resources through mega water supply projects that can transport water hundreds of miles to reach consumers in developed localities, they should also focus on small, local solutions that can help address the basic needs of those living in the bottom of the pyramid. These solutions are cost effective and can make a huge difference, as a small slum in Bhuj city has demonstrated. 

Assured water supply
By connecting a local well to a cluster of houses about 1 km away, the initiative has enabled assured water supply at their homes for just one hour every alternate day.

Arid Communities and Technologies (ACT), a Bhuj based NGO and Arghyam, a Bengaluru-based grant making foundation, have enabled the development of this local solution, which has successfully addressed water woes. The initiative is zealously guarded and managed by the community. 

A small solution but the benefits are significant, as Ramaben says. “My husband would often go out of frustration to the nearby liquor shop as I was unable to cook and give him dinner on time, busy as I was at the neighbourhood tap collecting water. Now, he has given up alcohol and even lends a hand at home to help me. My children are happy because I spend time with them, and all my aches and pains have disappeared, now that I don’t have to fetch water from a distance.” She smiles happily and her face glows.

These efforts are valuable in that they demonstrate the potential of community-led solutions to make a difference to the lives of communities. These efforts, however, need policy interventions and government support for scaling up and it is hoped that Sakina and Aminabai can get quick access to solutions that can make a difference to their lives.

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