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The Looming Water Crisis Will Mean Extra Labour For Girls & Women In Our Unequal Social Order

Posted: March 10, 2020

Getting water from a distance, getting up before anyone to fill water coming in the early hours, standing in line at a community tap, even the water wives of some communities – women undertake a disproportional amount of labour over water.

Back in the 1980’s, film director, K. Balachander from the Tamil film industry, highlighted one of the gravest issues to hit humanity. His path-breaking Tamil film Thaneer-Thaneer brought to centre stage the issue of drought and water-shortage.

Water – the responsibility of women?

There is a dramatic scene where one of the female protagonists, Sevanthi, played by actress Sarita, walks miles every day to fetch just two pots of water, all the while struggling to balance them along with her new-born baby. A poignant scene that drives home the point that water is one commodity that women will go to any length to provide for their families.

Growing up with my grandmother in Bangalore, I noticed that it was she who got up in the middle of the night to fill the vessels with drinking water when the municipal corporation supplied water for a few hours. All this – while the rest of the family slept. So, while we had taps, it didn’t spout water all the time.

It is also well known that globally, it is the girls in the family, who are responsible for fetching water and helping their mothers with household chores. This translates to spending nearly 6 hours per day just collecting water.

Basic necessity that affects women most

That is why it becomes a personal war for women and girls, when there is a water crisis.

While water is a basic human right, it impacts women and girls most. It becomes their responsibility for finding a resource their families need to survive – for drinking, cooking, sanitation and hygiene. Perhaps the depiction of Goddess Durga with many hands was inspired by these women.

It is not uncommon to see women standing in line, in both rural and urban India waiting for water. In rural India, they also have to walk long distances to collect water. In other areas, they have to pay exorbitant amounts of money to secure water. For instance, water shortage is becoming commonplace in India’s hill-stations. In Shimla and other parts of Himachal Pradesh, women walk long distances to get to water-tankers to buy water. These tankers in turn rely on groundwater which is getting depleted very fast.

Missed education opportunities for girls

According to a study, women around the world spend a collective 200 million hours collecting water. So like Sevanti in Thaneer- Thaneer, by regularly carrying litres of water every day, it is causing permanent damage to a woman’s health, especially if she is pregnant or if she is carrying small children. Pelvic deformities, chronic fatigue and deterioration of reproductive health is very common.

By Tom MaiseyFlickr, CC BY 2.0, Link 

When so many ‘woman hours’ are spent on just providing water to the family, the opportunity to finish their education and find jobs is remote. It becomes imperative that clean and safe water should be easily available to empower these women. It is interesting that most rivers in India are female and revered as Goddesses. But indeed, that has not stopped us from polluting them or the many lakes which have become dumping grounds for sewage-water.

The future of water is scary

According to water-expert and engineer, Pravinjith K P, Chairman and Managing Director of the Bangalore-based award-winning environmental company, Ecoparadigm, “Water-diplomacy will be a major political currency in the coming decades. If half the population of a nation, that is women, is heavily invested in merely acquiring water for daily life, then it means they are not available to contribute towards the growth of the country in any other way. This is another kind of brain-drain which, unfortunately but surely, will push economies down over time.”

But there are silver linings and this is largely due to participation of women in water-conservation. In Vellore, Tamil Nadu, an army of women resurrected the Naganadhi river, with the help of the ‘Art of Living’ volunteers and expertise of hydrologist, Ravindra Desai. The labour-intensive project had women working overtime and they created recharge wells and planted drought-resistant plants.

It is important to know that a river can flow only after there is enough groundwater and the recharge wells are healthy. This has helped rejuvenate a river that was dry until 2018.  Up in north of India, in the Bundelkhand area, which is a parched region, 600 Jal Sahelis or ‘water women-friends’ are trying to fix the region’s perennial water woes. It has been anything but easy, but the Jal Sahelis are optimistic.

“As a woman living in urban India, I can only imagine the troubles of rural women in acquiring water for the family. They are the ones who truly appreciate the value of water, and their water saving and conservation strategies are born out of necessity,” says Padma Shastry, an educator and co-author (with the author of this piece, Sangeeta Venkatesh) of the book The Waste Issue. She adds, “I wish urban India adopts a few of these strategies before it becomes imperative.”

As Jack Welch, recently departed ex-CEO of GE said, ‘Don’t manage. Lead change before you have to.’

Amen to that.

Header image source: By Tom MaiseyFlickr, CC BY 2.0, Link, shutterstock

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Sangeeta Venkatesh is the co-author of 'The Waste Issue' - an interactive workbook for school

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