Action Alert

Clean Water: The Key to Transforming, Empowering and Unburdening Women Around the World

 Clean Water: The Key to Transforming, Empowering and Unburdening Women Around the World
In Rajastahn, India, a woman carries water from the village center.

“Water is so scarce here that people barely get enough to drink, forget bathing. Often, entire families have to make do with just one bucket of water a day.” --Dr. Ranjana Kumari, in the Latur district in Maharashtra, India

Last month the United Nations recognized World Water Day. Food, water and shelter are all key resources needed for survival, with water the most important resource. Humans can last for more than three weeks without food, but since the human body is made up of 60 percent of water, every cell in the body needs water in order to function properly. Water acts as a lubricant for our joints, regulates our body temperature through sweating and respiration, and helps to flush waste. Water is essential for health, food, energy, transportation and much more. With 70 percent of the world's water resources needed for food production, places where water is scarce are struggling even more due to the lack of clean water.

On 28 July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights. In November 2002, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted General Comment No. 15 on the right to water. The committee established the right of everyone to sufficient, safe, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. “My administration wants to work with members of both parties ...  to promote clean air and clear water…” President Trump said as he spoke to Congress on February 28, 2017.

Globally, water-related diseases kill one child every 15 seconds, and over 5,000 children die each day due to dirty water or poor hygiene. In the developing world, women are often given the responsibility to fetch water, and young girls are missing out on their education to help their mothers. Still, there often is not enough water to sustain a household.

Global Water Realties

India has the second largest population in the world, and with such a vast population, there is a constant need for resources. India is in dire need of clean water resources, and does not have enough water resources to provide for its citizens. Currently, after two years of poor rainfall and the intense summer heat, India is dealing with one of the nation’s worst droughts since its independence.  

Globally, only 13 percent of men help collect water. “In every household, in the rural areas in the desert state of Rajasthan, women and girl children bear the responsibility of collecting, transporting, storing, and managing water,” wrote environmentalist Dr. Vandana Shiva.

India has depleted its water reservoirs, forcing women to search beyond their homes for water. In general, women are viewed as the sole provider for water for the household in India. Even young girls share this responsibility.

ripple effect
Courtesy of Unilever

The World Bank estimates that 21 percent of diseases in India are linked to unsafe water and a lack of hygiene practices. There is also lack of hygiene within schools, which affects about half of all girls worldwide who attend schools without toilets. The lack of privacy causes many girls to drop out when they reach puberty.

Women also suffer from abuse and inequality. “Socially, they [women] are often regarded as lesser humans and face frightening levels of violence, discrimination, and sexual assault. The drought further exacerbates these deep-rooted problems,” says lawyer and women's rights activist, Varsha Deshpande.

A custom that has been around for years is to marry several women for water, who are known as Water Wives. Men marry multiple women for the sole purpose of ensuring that there will be a water supply in their household. This custom helps supply an entire household with its basic water needs. "My first wife was busy with the kids. When my second wife fell sick and was unable to fetch water, I married a third,” said 66-year-old farm laborer, Sakharam Bhagat.

Organizations such as Piramal Sarvajal (Water For All) and The Water Project are working to expand access to water. Piramal Sarvajal is a mission-driven social enterprise that is committed to leveraging technology to bring safe drinking water to those who have little to no access to safe water. This is done through the installation of a high-tech community-level purification plant that is used for the delivery of safe drinking water at affordable prices, known as water ATMs. Water ATMs are automated water dispensing units that are available 24/7, are solar powered, cost efficient, and, most importantly, safe to drink.

Water Around the World

In Europe, although water is safe to drink, it is scarce. In order to preserve water, European citizens and visitors are encouraged to use less water. This includes collecting rainwater for gardening and for washing the car, taking showers rather than baths, not leaving the water running when brushing teeth or cleaning dishes, and limiting the use of bottled water.

São Paulo, Brazil, is the Western Hemisphere’s largest city, and it is experiencing water shortages. “The reservoirs are much lower than they used to be. It is raining much lower than the average. So we might have some difficult situations in the near future,” says Paulo Dallari, deputy secretary for the São Paulo mayor’s office. The city suffers from poor planning and failing infrastructure, with the national and local government falling behind in upgrading pipes, dams and transmission lines.

In Africa, one child dies every 21 seconds from a disease caused by unsanitary water. Unsafe water in Africa causes diseases like typhoid fever, cholera, diarrhea and recurring stomach pains. Africa faces huge challenges with multiple issues that unfavorably affect public health. Similar to India, it is the job of young girls and women to fetch water. As a result, young girls are not getting a proper education because they are missing school days to help fetch water. Along with the lack of funding to ensure that young girls are getting an education, there is also a lack of funds to provide co-ed toilets in schools. When girls menstruate, less attendance or dropping out of school altogether are extremely common.

Much of Africa has developed what’s known as a water poverty trap, which is a cycle that leads to the loss of food security, diseases, and unfinished education, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Those living in poverty are not able to pay for clean water. Half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa lives on less than $1 per day, and clean water in Africa typically costs 10 to 30 percent more for people without access to piped water.

The American Water Reality

According to the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the United States uses 42 billion gallons of water daily. Around 80 percent of drinking water in the U.S. comes from surface waters such as rivers, lakes, reservoirs and oceans, and the remaining 20 percent comes from groundwater aquifers. Nearly six billion gallons of treated drinking water are lost due to leaking pipes, with an estimated 240,000 water main breaks occurring each year. Threats to the drinking water infrastructure can be attributed to the sources of drinking water, such as polluted water bodies, depleted aquifers and inadequate storage. Yet drinking water quality in the United Sates remains the safest in the world.

Despite such safety, Flint, Michigan, is suffering from unclean water resources. “Flint water is safe to drink,” said officials in 2014 after they made the decision to switch from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River. The Flint River was the city's primary water source decades earlier, until the city switched to Lake Huron in 1967, which lead to the purchasing of supplies through the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. In order to save money, the city switched water sources, but failed to add chemicals to prevent pipe corrosion, causing lead to leach into the water system.

There has been a rise of medical trace-back outbreaks that all lead back to Flint’s drinking water. For example, according to The Detroit News, Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor whose research team helped identify the presence of lead in Flint’s drinking water in 2015, agrees that it is likely that some pneumonia deaths may have been caused by Legionella, which is a virulent form of pneumonia. Shigellosis, a disease that is easily contracted through the accidental ingestion of fecal matter containing the bacteria also occurred. With a growing lack of trust among residents, bottled water has become the “new water system” for cooking and washing. To avoid using the contaminated water, some residents have traveled outside of the city and have signed up for gym memberships in order to shower in purified water.

For nearly a year, Michigan has been paying 65 percent of the total of Flint water bills. However, the state recently ended the program that subsidized the water bills of some Flint residents, due to the lead contamination. As of March 1 it was determined that the water meets federal standards, leaving the state no longer required to pay for water on behalf of its residents. Water bills in Flint are said to be the highest in the United States. According to ABC News, residents "received about $41 million in state credits to help them pay for their water bills from April of 2014 to when the plan expired.” Residents are outraged by this decision, and expected more from their leaders.

Years after the NBC4 I-Team first exposed lead-tainted drinking water at Los Angeles-area schools, thousands of schoolchildren are still drinking from fountains that might be unsafe. These children are vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can cause learning disabilities and a host of physical ailments. In New Jersey, the Department of Health found that 378 children between 6 months and 26 months old had lead levels in their blood. Martin County in Kentucky is also suffering from unsafe water. The water in Marin County is brown and has a very unpleasant odor. Some have even mentioned that at times the water smells like bleach or sewage. Residents there are working with the city to respond to the problem.

The United Nations states that “the human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.” Raise your voice and insist on clean, accessible water!

Posted or updated: 4/10/2017 12:00:00 AM
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Take Action

Contact your local congressional representative at 202-224-3121 to urge their support of:
  • H.R.48 This bill requires that activities carried out by the United States in South Sudan relating to governance, post-conflict reconstruction and development, police and military training, and refugee relief and assistance support the human rights of women and their full political, social, and economic participation.
  • S.210 - Global Health, Empowerment and Rights Act This bill states that foreign nongovernmental organizations shall not be ineligible for U.S. international development assistance under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 solely on the basis of health or medical services.
  • Oppose H.Res.152: Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that clean water is a national priority, and that the June 29, 2015, Waters of the United States Rule should be withdrawn or vacated.
Join the Clean Water Action team and Stop the Dirty Water Attacks in Congress.
Join Water Aid and Raise Your Voice for Water Justice.

Learn More

Study The Guardian infographic: “The ripple effect: liberating the time women spend collecting water
Find out how your neighborhood air and water quality ranks.
Read the report on gender and water
Study this database that gives a regional overview of water resources
Read the Drinking Water Report

More Resources

New York United Methodist Members Take Action

United Methodist Women member Ingrid Peters is the president of the Long Island West District United Methodist Women of the New York Conference. In this role, she raises awareness that will help women improve their lives and the lives of their families. Peters is an advocate for the wellbeing of all people, with an emphasis on women and children.

Peters and her colleagues were asked to come up with a creative way to promote a theme, We Are A Community of Women Who Are Global. They did so by performing a skit that addressed unsanitary water, lack of indoor plumbing and water-borne diseases. Growing up in the Caribbean, Peters has experienced living conditions where water is not always accessible or clean, which is why she is motivated to speak out on the issue. By raising awareness, she and her colleagues are educating people on the issue in the hope that more people will be willing to take a stand and become advocates.