The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is pleased to launch a new blog series, “Uncharted Waters,” to explore the challenges of feeding and nourishing a rapidly growing global population in the face of water scarcity. We will publish one post each week addressing these issues, and our series will culminate with the release of a new Council report at the 2019 Global Food Security Symposium. Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the Symposium live stream on March 20 and 21.
By Michael Tiboris, PhD
Humans all need water for roughly the same things and in roughly the same amounts. And yet, water insecurity has profoundly disproportionate effects on women. These effects manifest in a variety of ways, are intensified by climate change, and speak to the need for gender-focused approaches to solving global development challenges.
Water insecurity is the inability of a population to gain sustainable access to adequate safe water for basic health and development. Globally, women and girls experience it at higher rates than men. Some of the reasons for this are well understood and linked to the low levels of safe water access among the global poor. Among poor populations, women also have fewer resources as they are often the last to eat, receive less healthcare, and collect much of the water for household use in the developing world. More 260 million people globally have no safe water access within thirty minutes of their home. The physical act of traveling to gather this water is extremely time consuming, physically taxing, and often dangerous.
It is almost exclusively carried out by women and girls.
Exposure to untreated water—before it can be brought home and boiled—exposes women and girls to waterborne illnesses and has been linked to poor school attendance. Even small drops in the amount of time needed for water collection substantially reduce these risks. A five minute shorter trip, for instance, reduces the risk of diarrheal disease and increases bodyweight for young children by 14 percent, while a fifteen minute shorter trip reduces the risk of diarrheal disease by more than 40 percent.
Even in places where water security is more common on average, there are significant gendered differences at the household level. Women polled about their water collection activities in Kenya expressed widely shared concerns about their physical safety while fetching water. Women, and to a lesser extent, girls, give up their share of household water resources to male family members, and not necessarily out of self-sacrifice. Insufficient household water and sudden rainfall shocks have been associated with more violence directed at female family members, higher rates of female homelessness compared to male homelessness, and even reduce age of child marriage.
Water security is also a challenge for female farmers. Adaptation to climate change appears to be happening more slowly for them compared to their male peers. A study in Uganda found that farmers have begun to notice a range of climate effects, including declining soil quality, more frequent flooding, and new pests, but that rates of adaptation are noticeably gendered. In some places, women are formally excluded from land ownership, which is a major barrier to water security as well as food security. Gender equitable land tenure reforms, which would allow women to get loans for farm improvements and to be eligible for initiatives aimed at landholding farmers, would thus contribute to food and water security as well as climate resilience.
Read our previous posts in the Uncharted Waters series: