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Women as water providers bear the worst burden of the deepening water crisis in the country. They walk for long stretches in search of water in rural areas or stand in queues for a small quantity of water near roadside taps or water tankers in urban areas. On an average, a rural woman walks 18,000km a year, often barefoot in the hot sun, just to collect water for her family, often braving dust storms on the way. At times, distances are so long that she needs to take rest on the way and, continue the journey later. And as basins and rivers dry up, the country’s food situation also gets threatened. Even though it sounds bizarre, it could be said that water is to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century.

Agriculture uses up maximum quantity of fresh water available. In places where there is no adequate water for farming, men migrate to urban areas in search of work leaving women behind to fend for the old and the children. Women spend most of their time, collecting water with little time for other productive income generating work. This has an adverse effect on the education of the girl child – if the girl is not collecting water, she is looking after the home and her siblings when her mother is away collecting water. It also affects her personal hygiene. The entire time of women in rural areas in Jaisalmer is spent in water collection and cooking. For many girls, “Water fetching is schooling.”

Displacement due to dams and irrigation has also contributed to the increasing water burden of women. Women in Nandurbar district of North Maharashtra share their woes by saying: “Forget about getting safe drinking water from wells, we spend most of our time locating streams and springs that quench our thrust.” In Bundelkhand, women have no work but to collect drinking water on their heads from long distance. The grim situation of water may be best illustrated by one Bundelkhandi saying which, when roughly translated, means: “Let the husband die but the earthen pot of water should not be broken.”

The chore of water collection is a backbreaking one with the methods having adverse health effects. Regular contact with water also makes women prone to water-borne diseases such as Schistosomiasis (bilharzia), onchocerciasis and dracunculosis (spread by guinea worms).

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and public health norms, in order to meet basic health and hygiene needs a minimum of 50 litres of water per capita is required a day. The government allocates 40 litres, including for those who own livestock, and the actual delivery is less than 10 litres. Often, even this is not available, sending women scrambling for water.

The right to water is at the heart of the right to life guaranteed in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. That is why when adivasi women in Plachimada, Kerala, started their protest two years ago against Coca Cola mining 1.5 million litres / day and leaving toxic pollution behind, the Court came in their support and ruled that water is a public good, the right to water is a fundamental right, and water depletion and pollution is a violation of the Constitution’s Rights of Communities.

India embarked on reforms in water last decade with some guiding principles. NGOs in some states are mounting pressure on the establishment to involve women in water associations. In many states, for example Gujarat, the Participatory Irrigation Management Act insists on joint membership from each household. Many NGOs in the rural areas have been trying to look at water rights as part of human rights. There are some success stories. But this is yet to become a movement. Some NGOs like SEWA have been involving women in water-related issues.

There seems to be two areas of concern with respect to women and water. One is building on and mobilising information-gathering, alliance-building and knowledge-dissemination at local and village level. The other is to find space for such issues as seeing “water as part of human rights” and “women as having the rights” and mainstreaming them in government planning and implementation process. A formal structure needs to be created around women.

Dr Abha Shende
Watson Scholar PDCP, USA
Environmental Management Professional

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