Women, water and the ugly global crisis we’re not talking about


Internally displaced women carry jerry-cans of water on their backs from a well in Somalia's capital Mogadishu September 6, 2011. (ISMAIL TAXTA/REUTERS)
February 29, 2012

April Rinne is the director of Water.org’s WaterCredit initiative, which uses microfinance tools to address water and sanitation needs. In 2011, Rinne was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

Imagine you’re a young woman in an urban slum, perhaps Nairobi or Mumbai. You spend several hours each day waiting for water to arrive on a truck. When that truck arrives, the driver charges a price that he alone sets.

You cannot control the price, how full the truck is, how many people are in line, when the truck arrives, or the quality of the water. You are unable to take on a job with fixed hours because you can’t predict these factors with regularity. To make matters worse, you never know the quality of the water coming from the truck, so you filter and treat it as best as you can, but your family often gets sick.

People whose only option is to purchase water from trucks operated by the local “water mafia” pay an average of 5-to-15 times more per liter than people with dedicated municipal connections. It is estimated, according to a 2006 World Bank report, that sub-Saharan Africa loses an estimated 5 percent of its GDP each year due to the water and sanitation crisis, a sum that can exceed all foreign assistance received in the region, according to a report by the United Nations Development Programme. Current investment falls far short of the amount estimated to be required to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MGDs) for water and sanitation globally.

Those who pay bribes to get repairs done or falsify their meter readings to lower their bills are the lucky ones, since they actually have networked water access. Many more people do not have a water connection at all, and do not have access to the capital necessary to obtain it.

But this story is about more than water supply, it’s also about sanitation.

Imagine you’re that young woman again. But this time the water in your village is hygienic, accessible and usable in some way — that is until waste finds its way into the mix. Maybe a neighbor has dysentery and defecates in the pond. Maybe the primitive latrine is too close to the well.

Now, imagine you are a ten year old girl in the developing world. Your family has water access and you’re able to go to school. However, your school doesn’t have a toilet. But you love learning, and you have an abundance of ideas about what you want to achieve when you get older.

Then, just as you reach the peak of your potential, you also reach puberty. Going to school when you’ve got your period is awkward, and you don’t have any alternatives, so you stop attending those few days every month. Pretty soon, the days add up and you fall behind. So, you stop going to school altogether, and your future plans are erased simply because you don’t have a toilet — a toilet that costs, perhaps, $150 in India. In what other context could we permit such a basic solution with enormous long-term value to go unmet?

Sanitizing the problem

Fixing a sanitation problem means toilets. Pit latrines. Hygiene — washing your hands after using the bathroom, preparing food away from human or other waste. Not defecating in the open. And most of all, it means dignity.

Basic lack of toilets lies at the core of the sanitation crisis. However, culture often compounds its effects in ways that are exponentially more problematic for women and girls. For example, due to privacy and cultural concerns, women and girls who don’t have toilets are often unable to go to the bathroom during the day. To cope with this they restrict their food and water intake, which leads to serious health problems. Moreover, when they are only able to go to the bathroom before sunrise or after sunset, they are also subject to dangerous situations such as assault and injury at night.

Everyone is affected, of course. But women and girls bear the overwhelming majority — in some regions upwards of 90 percent — of the global water and sanitation burden, according to a 2010 report by the World Health Organization. They are the ones pulled and kept out of school, rendered unable to take on productive work, and trapped by the gender and financial dynamics of this crisis.

There’s a cultural problem on the other side of the equation as well. Toilet talk usually isn’t welcome at cocktail parties. Public discussions about the effects of menstruation or diarrhea are taboo in most places. Ironically sanitation often masquerades as a “water-related” issue. However, as the Gates Foundation and others have found, the return on investment in sanitation can be incredibly high. In order to leverage this, we cannot abide by the traditionally sanitized approach to charitable giving and development aid. We must open the discourse to include terms like pour-flush, eco-san and septic tanks.

Try a new filter

When it comes to the global water crisis, we often hear the statistics. Close to one billion people lack access to safe water. More than 2.6 billion people – more than one in every three people alive – don’t have an adequate toilet, according to a 2008 report by the World Health Organization and United Nations Children’s Fund Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation. More than 3.5 million people died in 2002 from water, sanitation and hygiene-related causes, according to a report by the World Health Organization. Water wars, impending water conflicts, water stress (not enough water in many places, too much water in others) is daily news.

In addition, water collection imposes significant time and productivity costs at the individual, household, family, community and national levels. More than 200 million hours are spent each day collecting water around the world according to data collected by Water.org. And an estimated 443 million school days are lost each year due to collecting water and being sick from water-borne disease.

It’s time talk of statistics turned into talk of solutions. This scenario can change, and there are already innovative solutions in development. Organizations like NextDrop are in the early stages of creating a mobile phone application that would provide individuals with critical data on water availability and quality. Microfinance provides another, demand-driven pathway to a solution. As the Director of WaterCredit.org, I have seen first-hand how partnerships with microfinance institutions (MFIs) can link the water, sanitation and microfinance sectors in order to catalyze sustainable and affordable solutions for clients’ water and sanitation needs.

Small amounts of finance, mobile applications, and prioritization of toilets in schools. These surprisingly simple innovations can lead to a tsunami of social change. Water and sanitation can revolutionize the future of women, girls, and, in so doing, improve the world for us all. Let’s not waste another minute, or another drop.

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