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Water & Sanitation

Women Spend 40 Billion Hours Collecting Water

Women in Africa spend 200 million hours collecting water. Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS

Women in Africa spend 200 million hours collecting water. Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS

STOCKHOLM, Aug 31 2012 (IPS) - As the weeklong international conference on water concluded Friday, it was left to one of the keynote speakers from the United Nations to focus on a much neglected perspective on water and food security: the role of women.

Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director of U.N. Women, told delegates that development can be neither sustainable nor inclusive if it does not free women and girls from “carrying heavy buckets of water every day”.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, 71 percent of the burden of collecting water for households falls on women and girls, says the U.N.’s 2012 report on Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Currently, women in sub-Saharan Africa spend an average of about 200 million hours per day collecting water, and a whopping 40 billion hours per year, according to the U.N. Development Programme.

“And that’s a billion with a B,” Puri emphasised to IPS hours after she made an impassioned plea for gender equality and women’s empowerment in relation to food and water security.

Speaking at the closing session of the conference, she pointed out that although women carry, literally and metaphorically, most water-related tasks – playing a key role in food production, especially in subsistence farming, and performing most of the unpaid care work -their participation in decision-making processes on water and food management remains very low.

“This does not only result in biased and misinformed decision-making, it jeopardises the achievement of women’s human rights,” she added.

The annual conference, one of the world’s largest gathering of water experts, drew over 2,000 delegates to the Swedish capital this year.

Rita Colwell, the 2010 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate, said women in Bangladesh were using their saris to filter contaminated water, resourcefulness that has helped reduce cholera by nearly 50 percent.

“The key area of empowerment is in empowering women,” she added. “In educating women on the value of safe water, we are then educating the household, and through that the entire country, to change their behaviour.”

At a side event, “Why African Women Matter in Sustainable Food Production”, it was pointed out that women do much of the farm work, and also grow most of the food crops, yet men control most of the land, farming inputs and equipment and agricultural markets.

The bottom line: women are key actors in agricultural activities but they are not key decision makers.

There are few or no women in national water boards governing the management and distribution of water, and fewer still holding decision-making jobs at ministries for gender affairs.

In 2012, women held less than six percent of all ministerial positions in the field of environment, natural resources and energy, according to the United Nations.

Agriculture has not fared any better. “Only five percent of women in Kenya own land registered in their own names,” said Dr. Akinyi Nzioki of the Centre for Land, Economy and Rights of Women (CLEAR) based in Kenya.

Violet Shivutse of Grassroots Organisations Operating Together in Sisterhood (GROOTS) of Kenya said today’s land tenure system continues to undermine rural women’s efforts to access land when they rely so much on agriculture for their livelihoods.

She said most inherited land is transferred primarily to sons, not daughters. And there were instances of widows with HIV/AIDS who were evicted from homes and denied access to land.

Bethlehem Mengistu, regional advocacy manager for WaterAid in East Africa, told IPS that most African countries do have national legislation and are state parties to international conventions protecting the rights of women.

“We have made lots of progress,” she said, “but there is a gap between policy and implementation.”

Puri, who attended the Rio+20 summit meeting in Brazil in June, said the outcome document adopted by world leaders there set in motion a number of processes, including the development of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which will follow the completion of the U.N.’s  Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015.

It is important not only that these SDGs include a specific goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment, but also that gender perspectives are mainstreamed in all other goals, including a SDG on water, she noted.

“This will give the goals a better chance to be achieved and, at the same time, contribute to the achievement of gender equality.”

She said the combined impacts of the recent economic and financial crises, volatile energy and food prices, and climate change have exacerbated water and food scarcity, along with their detrimental impact on women and girls. Creating a water and food secure world requires putting women and girls at the centre of water and food related policies, actions and financing.

On the positive side, the global movement towards gender equality and women’s empowerment has also shown results, albeit limited.

In Morocco, for instance, the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Project of the World Bank was aimed at reducing the burden of girls, traditionally involved in fetching water, in order to improve their school attendance, said Puri.

In the six provinces where the project is based, it was found that girls’ school attendance increased by 20 percent in four years, attributed in part to the fact that girls spent less time fetching water.

At the same time, convenient access to safe water reduced time spent collecting water by women and young girls by 50 to 90 percent.

She said it has also been proven that improvements in infrastructure services – especially water and electricity – can help reduce time women time spend on domestic and care work.

In Pakistan, putting water sources closer to the home was associated with increased time allocated to market work. In Tanzania, a survey found that girls’ school attendance was 15 percent higher for girls from homes located 15 minutes or less from a water source than for those in homes one hour or more away.

“We need to address the multifaceted gender discriminations in accessing and controlling productive resources such as water and land, assets and services,” Puri noted.

She said evidence suggests that investing in women-owned food and agricultural enterprises could narrow the resource gap and increase agricultural yields to potentially reduce the number of hungry people by 100 to 150 million.

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  • Ian Angus

    This is an important article, but the numbers do not match the talk According to the UN text, what Puri actually said was “Globally, it is estimated that women spend more than 200 million hours per day collecting water.” That’s globally, not just in Africa as the article says.

    That would total 73 Billion hours a year. The number 40 Billion does not appear Puri’s talk.


  • IPSmoderator

    Dear Ian Angus,

    As the IPS story points out, Puri used the figure of 40 billion in her interview with IPS (“That’s a billion with a B”).

    We double checked the figures and that number (40 billion), even if it does not add up with the previous figure for Africa as cited by Puri (200 million hours per day in Africa) comes from this UNDP report, which actually says women in sub-Saharan Africa alone spend 40 billion hours per year collecting

    water. The overwhelming majority of women who perform this daily ritual is from Africa, hence the focus is Africa.

    Then, we have clarified the sentence further:

    Currently, women in sub-Saharan Africa spend an average of about 200 million hours per day collecting water, and a whopping 40 billion hours per year, according to the U.N. Development Programme.

    “And that’s a billion with a B,” Puri emphasised to IPS hours after she made an impassioned plea for gender equality and women’s empowerment in relation to food and water security.

  • Janet McMahan

    After our 2 dogs, our son and I were diagnosed with Cancer, we found Toxic Levels of Arsenic in our Water Heater Water in Georgia. State’s way of testing faucet water had negligible results. An Extension Agent in Cumming, GA found toxic levels of Arsenic in our friend’s Water Heater Water after her faucet water was “negligible” 3 times. I told everyone I talked to about Arsenic in our water and the need to test “their” water and continuously asked the State to Please Help Me Warn Everyone. The State said they could not help me warn people. In fact, I found a letter written by the State Ag & Enviro Svcs Lab telling Extension Agents “It is not our intent to alarm the public…” After my husband & I took a copy of that letter to Washington, DC, Senator Austin Scott put my husband, Dr Howard McMahan in touch with the NIEHS, the people who do the Environmental Cancer Cluster Studies. They told my husband they have known since the 80s that Arsenic in our drinking water is Causing Cancer Clusters but are not allowed to warn anyone because of “politics”. If the women in this Article, who are diagnosed with HIV/Aids have access to Arsenic-Free Water and Vitamin C, they stand a much better chance of Survival!!.Please Tell Them, as my family refuses to let me go to those countries, even though I have been promised that I would be protected.. Buy a Filter or Be a Filter… . God Bless You and All That You Love!!

  • southtpa

    I was taught never use the hot water tap for anything but washing. Cook and drink from the cold. How much arsenic can be left on a dish? Of course arsenic is a carcinogen but people deliberately ingest it and it doesn’t seem to have this incidence.

  • Janet McMahan

    Arsenic comes through the cold water faucet as well.. States’ way of testing cold water is to run cold water for 2 to 3 min, then slow to a pencil-thin stream to collect. Test at 7am on Day 1, Noon on Day 3, between 4 & 5 on Day 5…of course paying for all 3 tests. If the Arsenic is not there on those three days, but a month later because the level of the water dropped in the aquifer that has your 400 ft well pipes, the concentration is Higher; therefore, more of the sediment (painted with Arsenic III) is brought into the home. Reason for testing water heater water is that the heavy metals collect in the water heater as it collects in the well tank. Since it is easier to get water from the bottom of water heater than it is from bottom of well tank, that is the source that the Extension Agent from Cumming, GA used when my friend almost died from Arsenic Poisoning. His wife had extreme levels of Arsenic in her blood as well. She had patches of her hair falling out. Their Extension Agent also found Arsenic Trioxide “painted” on lots of the sediment in the filter at their well. The State of GA is recommending a particular kind of filter to remove Arsenic III. Jay Hanlon in Buford, GA has the filters 770-487-1066. As of last week, we now have the State-recommended filters in our Medical Office in Ocilla, GA. 229-468-9903 or 3869.

  • wH2O

    It’s great that this issue is getting such prominence. We’re working on our second issue of wH2O: The Journal of Gender & Water at the University of Pennsylvania. We are also co-hosting a conference in April 2013 at the Wharton School on gender & water. Sign up on our email newsletter if you’d like to be kept informed. (

charlie angus