International Women's Day

Four ways that climate change can intensify gender inequities in clean water access

NOTE: This post originally appeared on the DefeatDD website. Access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) plays an important role in typhoid prevention and control. Climate change threatens this access—particularly for women and girls. Accelerated WASH improvement efforts are urgently needed alongside other prevention measures like typhoid conjugate vaccines (TCVs).

You’ve probably heard this before: women and girls are more greatly impacted by climate change than men and boys. But what does an overarching statement like this really mean?  On March 8, 2022, we celebrate International Women’s Day under the banner of “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow.” Let’s take a closer look at an area with clear gender, climate and health impacts for everyone: access to clean water.

WASH and gender: Inequitable burdens placed on women and girls

Access to clean water is critical for reducing risk of diarrheal disease and many other health challenges.  Yet the World Health Organization and UNICEF reported that in 2020 one in four people, globally, lacked safely managed drinking water.  This is due in part to the large number of people whose only clean water sources are located far from their homes.  According to a 2018 report by Water Aid, over 800 million people the world over spend 30 minutes or more round-trip to access water.

Gender norms in many low- and middle-income countries place primary responsibility for household work, including the collection of water for household use, on women and girls. Gender inequities are based on unequal power relations at the individual, family, community, institutional, and structural levels relative to one’s perceived and/or personally experienced identity.  As such, gender is not the same as women and girls.  Nevertheless, in many aspects of daily life, including water and sanitation, women and girls face specific disadvantages.  For example, WHO and UNICEF estimate that in 8 of 10 households whose water sources are off premises, daily water collection is undertaken by women and girls.

Girls pump water at a village borehole well in Kanyagoga A, a suburb of Gulu town, Uganda.

Four ways that inadequate access to clean water disproportionately impact women and girls

1. Time use: In places where inequitable gender norms place the burden of water collection on women and girls, the amount of time spent on this task can be substantial. A woman who collects the UN-recommended 50 litres of water per person for a family of four from a water source 30 minutes away from home would spend a cumulative two and a half months a year on this task. This lost time translates into less time for girls’ education and women’s participation in economic activities. As the water scarcity crisis intensifies with climate change, more women and girls could spend even more time this task.

2. Financial costs: It costs money to maintain clean water points, and community-based water management can involve charging user fees to the households that collect water from those sources. In low-income households, women’s economic power is often highly constrained. While a woman often has the responsibility of sourcing food, water and firewood for the household, due to gendered norms and expectations, she may also have limited opportunities to earn enough money for all of these costs, and/or may not be sufficiently supported by her partner or other household members to cover the full range of needs. This already precarious situation could intensify if climate change results in even lower clean water availability.

3. Risk of violence: In the context of safe water access, violence against women and girls can take at least two forms as noted by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene. First, traveling long distances, often on foot and unaccompanied, women and girls may be exposed to sexual harassment and even physical or sexual assault en route to water collection points.  Second, economically vulnerable women and girls can also be subject to demands for sex in exchange for clean water if they cannot afford to purchase it from men who are managing water point access. It can be assumed that, without gender-responsive clean water interventions on a wide scale, both of these problems will intensify if women and girls must travel greater distances to clean water points and/or pay inflated prices to purchase water closer to home.

4. Clean water needs related to menstruation: Menstruators need clean water for personal washing, as well as for washing reusable menstrual products like menstrual cloths and menstrual cups.  This is a fundamental aspect of safe and dignified menstruation which is often insufficient at home, at work and in other public institutions like schools and healthcare facilities.  Water scarcity, can force choices about how water is used at the individual, household and community levels. With menstrual hygiene already insufficiently prioritized in many cases, this challenge could easily become even more problematic for menstruators in the face of climate-induced water shortages.

Unless we act, climate change will intensify gender inequities

On top of the hundreds of millions of people around the world who already lack access to safe water where they live today, water supplies are becoming scarcer with climate change-induced droughts and infrastructure damage. And we can expect the high temperatures and more extreme weather patterns associated with climate change to negatively impact rainfall, groundwater, and other water sources in the coming years.

The poorest communities in low- and middle-income countries are often the least likely to have access to reliable water sources, and women and girls will bear the brunt of these extremes, traveling greater distances to clean water points, losing time for work and school; becoming more vulnerable to attack; bearing added financial costs (poverty already disproportionately affects women); and being forced to manage menstruation without sufficient water.

Integrating gender considerations in WASH programs

Improved structural access to climate-resilient water (and sanitation and hygiene) must consider the needs of those whose current primary role is the collection of these basic needs for family use: women and girls. Clean water programs, and WASH investments more generally ,are also an opportunity to spotlight how inequitable gender norms can translate into negative health outcomes for whole families, especially children. We can work with communities as they design solutions to the interlinked challenges of climate change, inadequate clean water access, and gender inequities for the betterment of all.

Gender equality today will truly make for a sustainable – and gender-equitable – future tomorrow.

Photo courtesy of PATH/Will Boase.