The importance of drinking water supplies for rural women
"A village hand pump or standpipe
reduces the burden of water transport over long distances…"
--Rural Povery Report, p. 97
THEME: Lack of convenient access to domestic water is a common problem for the rural poor, with particular disadvantages for women.
The IFAD Rural Poverty Report 2001 recognizes the importance of water assets for the poor. Accessible domestic water supplies, even if shared by a large number of households, can make more and better-quality water available for family needs, reduce female drudgery and reduce the incidence of debilitating water-borne diseases. In fact, studies have found that water supplies are often at the top of the list of what the rural poor ask for themselves. But many villages in the developing world still lack even a communal well with a hand pump. In others, the well may be there, but the hand pump has been broken for years, and people have returned to their original and often remote water sources. Inadequate access to domestic water is particularly difficult for women and girls:
- Remote water sources increase women's workload. It is a well-known fact that in many countries, women and sometimes children spend two hours a day or more just collecting water from rivers or springs. This time could be put to use in farming, performing off-farm activities or, simply, resting.
- Disease is a threat at open water sources. Women sometimes risk bacterial and parasitic infections by having to collect water at polluted sources or where insects or other vectors abound.
- Water collection may disadvantage girls. Excessive time demands of water collection are a factor in the drop-out and frequent absences of girls from school. Some studies have found that girls in female-headed households are particularly at risk.
A study in a Mozambique compared water collection times in a village that had a communal standpipe with one in which the water source was a two-hour round trip away. It found that in the first instance, women spent only 25 minutes a day collecting water, whereas in the second village, it took them 131 minutes a day.
Maintenance of water supplies, particularly of hand pumps, is crucial for continued access. There are widespread maintenance problems in all regions and countries. The question has both a technology and a human side:
- The hand pump has to be easily maintainable, and spare parts or other needed inputs (such as oil, fuel) quickly accessible to villagers.
- People need to be trained in the maintenance and management of water supplies.
The report refers to a UNICEF experience in India where village women were trained in pump maintenance and repair. In one State, a cooperative of women mechanics was later contracted by the Government for such work. Many other countries have also trained women or men as caretakers of wells. Incentive systems have varied, with some caretakers paid by villagers, others by outside agencies, and others not at all. Widows or other especially needy villagers may be exempt from contributions to pump maintenance, as in a Tanzania case.
The issue of water quality is also important an important one. Water-borne diseases associated with unimproved water sources affect the health of the whole family. Without associated non-formal hygiene education, even water from "clean" water sources can become polluted during transport or storage in the home. Children of the poor are often ill from diarrhoeal diseases. Women in all cultures carry most of the burden in caring for the sick, which further increases their workload.
Women's lives could be considerably easier and the health of their families better if the women had reasonably easy access to domestic water supplies. Maintenance of water points and technologies such as hand pumps remains problematic. Positive experiences worldwide of village women and men being trained as well caretakers could set an example.
Adapted from:IFAD. 2001. Rural Poverty Report 2001: The Challenge of Ending Rural Poverty. Oxford University Press. February.