Feminization of water poverty in Africa
The second of the seven reflections of the Lenten Campaign: Seven Weeks for Water 2017 of the Word Council of Churches’ (WCC) Ecumenical Water Network (EWN) is by Dr Agnes Abuom, moderator of the WCC’s Central Committee.
Dr Abuom is the first woman and first African to hold this important position. She is also the Executive Director of TAABCO Research and Development Consultants, based in Nairobi, Kenya. In her reflection, being an African woman on the eve of International Women’s Day, she explores the linkages between poverty, water scarcity and its impact on women. It is also contextual in that today Kenya is reeling under a serious drought which is deteriorating the situation for women as they are mostly responsible for fetching water for their families.
Feminization of water poverty in Africa: An African woman’s reflection
By Dr Agnes Abuom
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, the world is in crisis. Serious droughts and famines are currently ravaging millions in Africa, particularly in the Horn of Africa. For women and children especially, every minute of this crisis is real and biting. The lack of water is squeezing the health and lives out of men, women and children. It is survival for the fittest! They cannot grow food; their livestock - the mainstay of their livelihoods - are dying in the thousands; they cannot maintain good health. Children cannot stay in school and people cannot continue working. These are the root cause of the crisis and water poverty.
Water and poverty are intricately linked. A lack of clean and safe water and poverty are reciprocally preventing access to consistent sources of clean, water which is crucial to poverty reduction. While Africa comprises 11 per cent of the world’s population, it has approximately 9 per cent of the world’s fresh water resources (World Bank, n.d.a.). Currently, Sub-Saharan Africa faces several water-related challenges that are threatening the livelihoods of its people, especially women and children. This situation is currently deteriorating with climate change. There is big gap in water infrastructure, limited water development and management capacity to meet the demands of a rapidly growing population. This is compounded by Africa having the fastest urbanization rate in the world. The burden of water poverty borne by women, especially in Africa, is immense. Diana M. Pearce, an American sociologist, in 1978, coined the phrase “feminization of poverty”. This concept has become a buzzword for explaining the plight of women all over the world. Feminization of water poverty therefore, may be defined as a phenomenon wherein women, as compared to men, experience water poverty at disproportionately high rates.
In this reflection, I seek to paint the picture of feminization of water poverty in Africa. Across the continent hundreds of millions of rural and the urban-poor women are experiencing adverse effects of the water crisis. Water poverty is manifested in various forms, including lack of sufficient available water; poor accessibility to clean, safe water and proper sanitation; time loss in fetching water; the risk of disease water-related infectious diseases and the resultant deaths.
As a young girl, I was brought up in a rural area in Western Kenya where we had no tapped water. Every day, we used to fetch water using pails on our heads from the nearby river for our domestic use. In the afternoons we used to drive our fathers’ cattle to the same river to drink water. During my high school and college life, I went to the city where water was piped, in abundance and accessible. We could bath as many times as we wanted, wash our clothes and swim. During my schooling in Sweden, water was everywhere - in pipes (hot and cold), in pools, in rivers in lakes and in the sea.
I have gone through experiences with women in various parts of Africa for the last forty years as a church worker, and development consultant. We have rubbed shoulders with rural women, who form the majority of the population in Africa, in every corner of Kenya, in East Africa, in Ethiopia, in South Sudan, in the Congo and in southern Africa. In these areas, water scarcity and accessibility, along with water poverty, is real and biting.
According to UNDP (2016), “Access to water, sanitation and hygiene is a human right, yet billions are still faced with daily challenges accessing even the most basic of services. Approximately, 1.8 billion people globally use a source of drinking water that is fecally contaminated. Around 2.4 billion people lack access to basic sanitation services, such as toilets or latrines. Water scarcity affects more than 40 per cent of the global population and is projected to rise.” In addition, water scarcity, poor water quality and inadequate sanitation negatively impact food security, livelihood choices and educational opportunities for poor families across the world. Drought afflicts some of the world’s poorest countries, worsening hunger and malnutrition. By 2050, at least one in four people is likely to live in a country affected by chronic or recurring shortages of fresh water. The economic impact of not investing in water and sanitation costs 4.3 per cent of sub-Saharan African GDP.
Feminization of water poverty in Africa is manifested in the following ways; adverse effects of disaster like drought; water scarcity; inadequate accessibility to clean water and sanitation; high incidence and risk of water-related diseases; the burden of fetching water and time lost in fetching water. Let us briefly reflect on each of these effects:
1. Disaster currently prevailing in the Horn of Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is adversely affected as a result of climate change as it becomes drier and drought prone. According to the International Federation of the Red Cross, over 20 million people in Kenya, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia are currently affected by drought. The majority of the victims are women and children. Now the government of Kenya has declared a drought, a national disaster (23 out of 47 counties are facing severe drought). Kenya's Drought Management Authority says that about 2.7 million people are in need, and livestock are threatened. During this drought, young girls and women in these countries can spend up to eight hours a day fetching around 20 litres of water. Currently many children are out of school.
2. Water scarcity resulting from the drought. Water scarcity involves water shortage, water stress or deficits, and water crisis. Notably, many parts of the world are experiencing water scarcity. This problem is worsened with climate change. In Africa both physical and economical water scarcity is impeding both social and economic development. Moreover, more often than not, water scarcity causes conflicts. Local communities are experiencing local tensions and violence over access to water points on a daily basis. In these conflicts women and children are the highest number of victims.
3. Water scarcity as a result of commercialization and privatization of water resources. There is no doubt that in Africa the scarcity of water is linked to climate change and mismanagement of resources. But more essential is the equitable access and distribution of water. As matters stand, companies and industrial plants are accessing more water for industrial use than those who access it for household use. For poor urban people living on the margins, the cost of water is increasingly becoming prohibitive. Thus many households cannot afford the amount of water needed for daily household use. Commercialization and privatization of water as a vital resource for sustaining life is of major concern in many African countries. In a recent development in the Horn of Africa a major dam and water were diverted for commercial farming. It rendered many small pastoral communities without sufficient water, resulting in loss of livestock and human lives as witnessed in the current drought in the Northern Corridor of Kenya.
4. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation: Safe water means consistent access to and adequate supply of clean water suitable for drinking, bathing, cooking, and cleaning. According to the World Health Organization, this means safe drinking water from a source less than one kilometre (0.62 miles) away and at least 20 litres (5.28 gallons) per person each day. For those who live in the developed world and other urbanized areas, access to clean water and sanitation are viewed as a basic right, not a luxury. However, millions of communities in Africa do not have this basic right and suffer from preventable struggles, diseases, and deaths because of it. Unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, and insufficient hygiene account for an estimated 9.1 per cent of the global burden of disease and 6.3 percent of all deaths, according to the World Health Organization. This burden is disproportionately borne by women and children in developing countries, with water-related factors causing more than 20 per cent of deaths for people under the age of 14. The lack of access to and availability of clean water and sanitation has had devastating effects on many aspects of daily life of women such as work burden, safety, education, and the equity of women.
5. Increase of water-related diseases: Nearly half of all people in developing countries have infections or diseases associated with inadequate water supply and sanitation (Bartram et al., 2005). In many countries in Africa, preventable water-borne diseases keep a large portion of the population in a cycle of illness, illiteracy, and poverty. At any time, half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from a water-related disease. Lack of sanitation is the world’s biggest cause of infection. Hand-washing reduces the risk of disease by 50 per cent. (The Global Public-Private, globalhandwashing.org, Health Impact). The water and sanitation crisis claims more lives through disease than any war claims through guns. The range of water-related microbial infectious diseases (that is water-borne, water-washed, water-based and water-related vectors) are immense. The overwhelming majority of rural and urban poor African women, men and children die every year from such water-related diseases. Preventable, water-borne disease like diarrhoea, typhoid and malaria also keep children out of school. When girls begin puberty and start to menstruate, they are disproportionately affected by a lack of safe water and sanitation because they are unable to attend to their hygiene needs at school. They must miss class for long periods, skip roughly one quarter of school days, and many drop out altogether. When children are unable to attend school and get an education, the workforce of the entire country is affected, and nations looking to emerge from widespread poverty find this obstacle very difficult to overcome.
6. The burden of fetching water: Women bear the heaviest burden when there is no safe water and sanitation. In most places that lack these resources, women and children are responsible for retrieving water for their families, often spending several hours each day travelling and waiting at a water point. This often puts them at risk of assault and injury. The women and girls often stay home from work and school to care for family members that are sick with water-related diseases. They do most of the cooking and cleaning for the family. They miss school when there is no latrine to give them a private place to take care of their hygiene needs during menstruation. They are more vulnerable to infections when they have to wait until dark to use the bathroom, which often means defecation in a field or forest. It is demanding to carry the equivalent of a 5-year-old child for three hours each day. And some women carry even more, up to 70 pounds in a barrel carried on the back.
7. Amount of time lost in fetching water: Time lost in fetching water robs women and their communities of their entire futures. The United Nations estimates that Sub-Saharan Africa alone loses 40 billion hours a year spent fetching water. The hours lost gathering water are often the difference between time to do a trade and earning a living. With much of one's day already consumed by meeting basic needs, there isn't time for much else. In Africa, women and girls walk on average over 3.5 miles each day to fetch water. Women often spend more than 15 hours a week gathering water... Just think of the things you would miss if you had to take three hours out each day to get water. This time is taken from education, child care, cooking, fetching wood, paid labour and other livelihood activities that are part of poor people’s survival strategies. With unclean water sources often miles from the villages, women and girls spend hours each day simply finding and transporting water. The typical container used for water collection in Africa, the jerry can, weighs over 40 pounds when completely full.
In conclusion, we need to reverse the situation: Mahatma Gandhi said "Poverty is the worst form of violence." And Indira Gandhi told the seminal 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, poverty’, “is the worst form of pollution”. Women and girls make up more than half the world’s population - and they are on the frontlines - often more deeply impacted than men and boys by poverty, climate change, food insecurity, lack of healthcare, and global economic crises. Their contributions and leadership are central to finding a solution. The UN in its Sustainable Development Goals recognizes the importance of reducing the number of people without sustainable access to clean water and sanitation. African countries and governments need to elevate the reduction of water poverty.
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