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Water & Sanitation

Indian Women Worst Hit by Water Crisis

Millions of Indian women struggle to bathe their children and collect water for household chores. Most poor do not get a home supply, increasing their reliance on erratic government-run water tankers. Credit Neeta Lal/IPS

Millions of Indian women struggle to bathe their children and collect water for household chores. Most poor do not get a home supply, increasing their reliance on erratic government-run water tankers. Credit Neeta Lal/IPS

NEW DELHI, May 3 2016 (IPS) - A staggering 330 million Indians, making up a quarter of the country’s population (or roughly the entire population of the United States), are currently reeling under the effects of a severe drought, resulting in an acute drinking water shortage and agricultural distress.

State governments are resorting to emergency measures like rushing water trains carrying billions of litres to thirsty hinterlands and doling out food rations to the starving poor.

As primary stakeholders in water resource management, Indian women have always borne the brunt of such shortages. Travelling long distances to fetch the precious commodity, balancing heavy pitchers on their head while juggling households, children and cattle, working on farms as well as well as giving care to the elderly, they have had to do this drudgery for decades.

In many rural areas, women walk over 2.5 kms to reach water sources. According to a report by noted environmentalist Dr. Vandana Shiva, on average, a rural Indian woman traverses 14,000 km a year just to fetch water.

"Water is so scarce here that people barely get enough to drink, forget bathing. Often, entire families have to make do with just one bucket of water a day." -- Dr. Ranjana Kumari

“In every household, in the rural areas in the desert state of Rajasthan, women and girl children bear the responsibility of collecting, transporting, storing, and managing water….Natural sources are drying up which adds the kilometres for women everyday to quench the thirst of their family as well as animals,” writes Shiva.

Ironically, women continue to slog for clean water even today, when India has emerged as Asia’s third largest economy helmed by a prime minister who aspires to put the country at the global high table. In the central state of Madhya Pradesh this summer, women are leaving their homes at the crack of dawn to procure water. Government schools are being shut early just so that children, especially the girls, too can pitch in.

In some regions, the impact of the water crisis has been so devastating that people are dying. An 11-year-old girl died of heatstroke and dehydration while collecting water from a village pump in the western state of Maharashtra earlier this month. Yogita Desai had spent close to four hours in 42C temperatures.

In the Beed district of Maharashtra, Chabubai Khamkar lost her balance and fell into a 40-foot-deep well and died while drawing water from the well whose level had plummeted perilously low.

According to Dr Shashank Shekhar, an associate professor at the Department of Geology, Delhi University, New Delhi, “The water scarcity is largely the result of stress on multiple water resources across India. On the one hand, the rapidly rising population and changing lifestyles of Indians have increased the need for fresh water. On the other, intense competitions among users in agriculture, industry and domestic sector are pushing the ground water table to abysmal levels.”

According to Dr. Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, a New Delhi-based think tank, women suffer disproportionately from the impacts of disasters because of cultural norms and the inequitable distribution of roles, resources, and power which apply to them in developing countries.

“These factors are altering economies, economic development, and patterns of human migration, all of which are contributing further to women’s vulnerability,” Kumari told IPS.

“While touring Latur district in Maharashtra, I’ve come across children with their skin scaling off due to lack of personal hygiene. Water is so scarce here that people barely get enough to drink, forget bathing. Often, entire families have to make do with just one bucket of water a day.”

According to the study “Effects of Drought on Livelihoods and Gender Roles: A Case Study of Meghalaya”, which analysed the effects of climate change on India’s north-eastern state of  Meghalaya, changing weather has serious repercussions on food security, availability, accessibility and utilisation and food system stability. When climate change-related disasters strike, women are more vulnerable than men, and the workload of women and girls increases, the survey concludes.

Like many rural Indian women worldwide, Manorama spends hours each day hauling water for her family to drink and wash, as well as for her livestock and crops.

The 40-year-old resident of Latur district in Maharashtra, one of the worst hit with drought, is helpless. “The drought has destroyed my family,” she told IPS by phone. “My husband has been admitted to hospital because of a heart problem while my daughters’ weddings have been put off. I’m the only bread earner, managing home and children between endless rounds of the hospital.”

Pallavi Kirkire’s fate is no better. The 38-year-old widow’s once swaying green fields in Bundelkhand in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh now resemble parched and cracked earth plots. They were once the source of income for her and her two children. A frustrated Kirkire is now planning to sell the land, her cattle and move to the city to “look for a better life”.

Apart from economic and social ramifications, doctors are discovering an alarming impact of the water crisis on women’s health, both mental and physical. Whether it’s the physical stress of collecting water from tankers in dozens of pots daily, or the emotional stress of managing with very little water or maintaining menstrual hygiene in times of acute water scarcity, it’s a tough haul for the ladies.

Activists say women struggle most from inadequate sanitation, the often unspoken part of the water crisis. The double whammy of lack of water and of inadequate sanitation leads to an inevitable downward spiral, especially for young girls. They cannot attend school, leading to lack of employability and subsequent loss of income even as they battle ill-health.

As a part of policy framework to achieve universal access of water, the Indian government has accorded the highest priority to rural drinking water. Yet despite the installation of more than 3.5 million hand pumps and over 116 thousand piped water supply schemes, most Indians continue to face water scarcity almost every year.

Not that the situation is any better in cities. Here, women have to queue up in front of public water taps for hours. Being at the end of the pipeline system, they get water only after the users ahead in the pipeline finish have collected their quota. Water fights are common among harried women waiting in queues for hours, especially in slums.

Experts caution that unless India’s portable water shortage problem is addressed in a long-term, sustainable manner, its impact on women will get more and more acute.

“In India, women are actively engaged in agricultural activities, including paddy cultivation and fishing, which are both affected by changing weather patterns and deficit water. Loss of livelihood increases women’s vulnerability and marginalisation. However, the impacts of a water crisis can be minimized by empowering women with requisite knowledge of their rights, relevant information and vocational skills,” sums up Kumari.

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