22 March was World Water Day, our annual reminder of this vital resource that most of us in the UK take for granted. Around the globe, people suffer and die from its scarcity and it is women who suffer the most where good clean water isn’t available.
Growing up in the 1980s, our TV channels had advertising pleading for money to ensure safe drinking water for communities in the Global South. As a child, I would see the women and girls carrying vast containers of water as charities asked for funds to bring water closer to their villages. But as a child I didn’t see what I see now – an inequality that means women and girls are responsible for water collection in eight out of ten households with water off-premises.
According to the charity Water Aid, the process of collection can easily take up to four hours a day in life-threatening conditions collecting from unsafe sources such as rivers and holes in the ground. Water containers can be as heavy as 20 kilogrammes and can contort spines and lead to problems in childbirth and with general physical health. Collection of water is generally seen as women’s work, as with many other unpaid domestic duties. Despite years of struggle and campaigning, that inequality persists – not just in who does the manual labour, but who experiences the consequences when that resource isn’t available.
Despite the fact women bear the load of water collection, they are less likely to be involved in decision-making in their communities, due to power structures and inequality around opportunities while women are fulfilling traditional household roles. This means that decisions about water provision – where it’s available, how it’s available and whether it’s as big a priority as other infrastructure projects – are likely to be made by men.
Water is life and we must treasure it. Yet around the world, billions of people every day are still without safe water and global structural inequalities mean that it’s women, children, refugees, indigenous peoples, disabled people and many marginalised groups that will suffer the brunt of water shortages exacerbated by an ever-warming and unpredictable climate.
800 women die every day around the world due to problems during pregnancy and childbirth. It’s pretty horrific to imagine going through childbirth without access to clean water and safe conditions that can lead to long-term illness or death for both mother and child, especially when we know that the solutions can be so simple to ensure their safety.
And for around a billion women, it isn’t just their health that means their lack of access to water puts them in danger. Around a billion women around the world live in fear of having to use open toilet facilities that leave them vulnerable to attack, rape and even death. The lack of safe access means that girls and young women often miss school as three in 10 schools in the world don’t have toilets, meaning many girls stay away during their period and miss the education they deserve to build sturdy foundations for their life opportunities.
This year’s World Water Day theme is ‘Leaving no one behind’ and is linked to the UN’s sustainability goal to ensure availability and sustainable management of water for all by 2030. Everyone should have access to safe and clean water, without discrimination. To achieve this, water must be treated as a human right, not a commodity for businesses to control access to and profit from mercilessly.
Thinking of water as an equality issue may seem strange if you live in a country where water seems plentiful, but where supply is restricted it follows a logical path that some discriminating factors will determine who has access and who doesn’t. The importance of this was brought home this week by the Environment Agency’s announcement that England could run out of water in just 25 years.
One crucial part of the solution is to ensure that we waste less water. Sufficient investment should be in place to ensure that water isn’t lost through leaks in infrastructure. As part of a Green New Deal, we need policies which ensure water is used efficiently both at home and in business. We have just twelve years until climate change does irreversible damage. Factors such as floods and droughts will affect the availability of clean water and unless we act now, and do everything we can to take control of decision making and put this at the top of the agenda, it will be women who suffer the most.