Water Security: A Wellspring for Rural Girls amid Climate Change

REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Women and girls are primarily responsible for water collection in the developing world. Every day, 263 million people, almost entirely women and girls, travel at least 30 minutes from home to collect water.1 This is an exceptionally time-consuming, physically demanding, and often dangerous activity.2 The time lost because of household water insecurity represents an extraordinary loss of productive capacity for women who already face the “time poverty” of uncompensated labor necessary for managing a household and caring for dependents.

We do not have bathrooms there. They have started, but the construction is not yet completed, and I don't like that aspect in the school. It is very difficult, particularly [for] girls and those who come from neighboring villages. During the monthly cycles, it is more difficult, so some girls don't come to school on those days.

—Rural girl, aged 15, Andhra Pradesh, India
Perhaps the most well-understood consequence rural girls face for water insecurity is poor school attendance. But girls are also exposed to the health risks of untreated water and the potential for contracting illnesses.3 Additionally, the rainfall shocks associated with climate change culminate in more violence directed at female family members.4 Water security-related risk of violence extends beyond the home: girls in multiple countries report harassment and assault during water collection and nighttime trips to latrines, ranking these trips as among the most dangerous places they go.5
As a result, constant anxiety about maintaining an adequate water supply, at great personal risk, has very negative mental health consequences for female family members, who suffer acutely and repeatedly when water is not available. Concern about water availability ranks very highly in surveys of female family members in the developing world, and female family members tend to give their share of household water resources to men and dependents.6
 
Other aspects of girls’ water insecurity are directly related to climate change. For example, women and girls are disproportionately more likely to be victimized by weather disasters, which will become increasingly frequent as the climate warms.7 Higher fatality rates for women in natural disasters create cascading effects on family resiliency and are linked to higher rates of infant mortality, early marriage, and trafficking of girls.8 Some of the effects of weather disasters are cumulative: repeated flooding in coastal Bangladesh caused by sea level rise and intense rainfall has put enough salt into drinking water sources to cause chronic hypertension and more frequent pregnancy complications.9

Despite the very significant obstacles that water insecurity presents to women and girls, the fact that they are frequently connected to physical water access presents a relatively clear path of investment for improving rural girls’ prospects.10

Despite the very significant obstacles that water insecurity presents to women and girls, the fact that they are frequently connected to physical water access presents a relatively clear path of investment for improving rural girls’ prospects.10
 
One target is exceptionally clear: water security improvements tied explicitly to improving rural girls’ school attendance. This can be done by more construction of private and secure toilet facilities at schools as well as investments to move communal water sources closer to where people live. There is already major mobilization on this front by USAID and others. Even greater efforts are needed to tie investment as clearly as possible to the massive benefits of girls’ education and to the economic and social benefits which follow.

Secondary education for girls and climate change risk

Many countries with high climate change risk also have the lowest levels of education for girls. Cutting a girl’s education short limits her future potential and opportunity and robs the world of the future innovators, leaders, and works that are needed to build climate resilience in the communities most in danger.

It is also important to expose the links between water insecurity, domestic violence, and mental health. Much effort goes into arguing that water insecurity creates economic losses, but it is much less frequently treated as a source of gender-based violence and girls’ mental health issues. The reality is that these need to be paired more extensively than they have been.
 
Improvements to rural girls’ water security and the social, legal, and economic conditions that influence it are constituent to responding to climate change itself. More water security translates fairly directly into a greater capacity for girls to protect themselves from danger, build wealth, and increase their personal autonomy. Crucial among the development goals for rural girls are improving school attendance and helping them build productive farm businesses as they get older. Basic water access is a necessary component of meeting these goals.
1 WHO and UNICEF, Progress on Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. 2017 Update and SDG Baselines (Geneva: World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 2017).
2 Susan Sorenson, Christiaan Morssink, and Paola Abril Campos, “Safe Access to Safe Water in Low Income Countries: Water Fetching in Current Times,” Social Science & Medicine 72, no. 9 (2011): 1522–26.
3 Susan Sorenson, Christiaan Morssink, and Paola Abril Campos, “Safe Access to Safe Water in Low Income Countries: Water Fetching in Current Times,” Social Science & Medicine 72, no. 9 (2011): 1522–26.
4 Rainfall shocks substaintially increase domestic violence in Tanzanian households (Olukorede Abiona and Martin Foureaux Koppensteiner, “The Impact of Household Shocks on Domestic Violence: Evidence from Tanzania,” discussion papers in Economics 16 (2016); in India (Sheetal Sekhri and Adam Storeygard, “Dowry Deaths: Response to Weather Variability in India,” Journal of Development Economics 111 (2014): 212–23). Homelessness following disaster is dangerous for women and girls. In places where marriage age is connected to marriage payments, weather shocks impact age (Lucia Corno, Nicole Hildebrandt, and Alessandra Voena, “Weather Shocks, Age of Marriage and the Direction of Marriage Payments” (Working Paper, No. 40, Dipartimento di Economia e Finanza (DISCE), Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, 2016)).
5 M. Sommer, S. Ferron, S. Cavill, and S. House, “Violence, Gender and WASH: Spurring Action on a Complex, Under-Documented and Sensitive Topic,” Environment and Urbanization 27 (2015): 105–16.
6 Elijah Bisung and Susan J. Elliott, “Psychosocial Impacts of the Lack of Access to Water and Sanitation in Low- and Middle-Income Countries: A Scoping Review,” Journal of Water and Health 15, no. 1 (2017): 17–30.
7 Greta Gaard, “Ecofeminism and Climate Change,” Womens’ Studies International Forum 49 (2015): 20–33.
8 Maitreyi Bordia Das, “The Rising Tide: A New Look at Water and Gender” (Washington, DC: The World Bank Group, 2017).
9 AHM Enamul Kabir, Tapos Kumar Chakraborty, and Gopal Chandra Ghosh, “Bio-Sand Filter (BSF): A Simple Water Treatment Device for Safe Drinking Water Supply and to Promote Health in Hazard Prone Hard-to-Reach Coastal Areas of Bangladesh,” American Journal of Environmental Protection 5, no. 5 (2016): 107–12.
10 Maitreyi Bordia Das, “The Rising Tide: A New Look at Water and Gender” (Washington, DC: The World Bank Group, 2017).
© 2018 THE CHICAGO COUNCIL ON GLOBAL AFFAIRS