Women and water

Published : Oct 10, 2003 00:00 IST

It is the woman who finds enough water for the family, but she has effectively been deprived of any role, by the National Water Policy, in the planning and implementation of programmes.

"She sends me to fetch water very early in the morning Oh! Grandfather, it is very difficult for me My pot never fills up fully The water is so deep that my rope hardly reaches it The sun rises and also sets by the time I return Unable to collect even one potful of water."

- A folk song of Rajasthan

THIS is the situation most women and girl children in semi-arid rural India find themselves in for much of the year. They trudge barefoot in the hot sun for hours over wastelands, across thorny fields, or rough terrain in search of water, often the colour of mud and brackish, but still welcome for the parched throats back home. On an average a rural woman walks 14,000 km a year just to fetch water. Their urban sisters are only slightly better off - they do not walk such distances but stand in long-winding queues for hours on end to collect water from the roadside taps or the water lorries.

In every household, particularly in the rural areas, women and girl children bear the responsibility of collecting, transporting, storing, providing, and managing water. To fulfil this and the added role as the guardians of household sanitation, hygiene and healthcare, women face considerable stress. "Yet the National Water Policy does not recognise women's role, is inequitable and has effectively moved away from considering water as a social good to an economic good. Consequently, it has reinforced the intrinsic link between land and water rights. This is a total denial of women's right to water," said Dr. Sara Ahmed, an Ahmedabad-based expert on gender and water, in her lecture at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, on "Mainstreaming Gender Equity in Water Management in India: Policies, Institutions and Practice".

Agriculture uses up some 92 per cent of all fresh water available. In places where there is no water for farming, men migrate to urban areas in search of work leaving women behind to fend for the old, and the infirm and the children. Women, says Sara Ahmed, spend most of their waking hours collecting water, with little time for other income-generating work. This impacts on the education of the girl child, for if the girl is herself not collecting water she is looking after the home and her siblings when her mother is away. It also affects her personal hygiene.

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). Her vulnerability is further reinforced by caste and class considerations.

Women's lives are intricately linked with water, but the water rights discourse is historically rooted in patriarchy, connected, as it is, intrinsically to land rights. The gender mandate recognises that men and women have diverse and different water needs, even within the same household although they may not necessarily be in conflict. Typically, men are seen as farmers and engaged more in agriculture and irrigation, and women as catering to domestic water needs. From this perception flows the difference in needs, which gives rise to differences in access to and control of water.

According to 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.

This has, ironically, given women the knowledge about sources of water, its quality and reliability, restrictions on storage and acceptable methods for it. Yet, they are neither included in planning/implementing water programmes, nor represented in bodies making decisions and policies on water. They have no official role in water management and regulation or even waste water disposal systems.

Development projects centre around markets and land rights. These projects, characterised by formal, centrally managed systems, displace informal, decentralised and participatory structures. According to Sara Ahmed, the technical staff and bureaucrats involved in the projects have little understanding of the functioning and use of local resources, pay no attention to socio-economic conditions, and work around a system that has begun to give primordial attention to privatisation and markets.

India embarked on reforms in water after 1999 with some guiding principles. The most important of these was to view water not only as a social good but as an economic good that has to be priced. This has resulted in the Central government's recent Swajaldhara initiative, which seeks to complement drinking water needs with sanitation, and mandates a decentralised approach with the government switching its role from that of a provider to a facilitator of water market. Under this system, the Panchayati Raj institutions will bear all operation and maintenance costs; they will bear 10 per cent of the total capital cost by collecting funds from the people. The rest of the money for the project, which follows the market-centric World Bank model, comes from international donors. This effectively rules out the poor, particularly women, from having any say, leave alone control, over water.

According to Sara Ahmed, the recent Water Policy pays lip-service to the role of women in accessing water, when it merely says: "They should be involved." The policy clubs them with other stakeholders such as the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and other marginalised sections. It fails to recognise that women, cutting across these categories, face immense problems in accessing water. The official apathy towards women is palpable and some of the informal decentralised water institutions such as pani (water) panchayats and pani samitis, set up by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to involve women, hardly do them any justice. Since the early 1990s, thousands of Water Users Committees (WUCs) have been set up in many States. But the poor and women face the entry barrier of land ownership. And where women are members (the figure has not exceeded 10 per cent), they have no voting rights.

Sara Ahmed says that equity and right to water should go beyond the technical process of involving women, to addressing social problems, including oppression and inequality that they face within the household.

NGOs in some States are mounting pressure on the establishment to involve women in water associations. In Gujarat, for example, the Participatory Irrigation Management Act insists on joint membership from each household. But this has met with little success, for in panchayats women are often proxies for men. Says Sara Ahmed: "This is only because water rights are linked to land ownership. Nowhere else in the world is it so intrinsically linked."

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. But it operates within the framework of the State. Once an NGO brings "rights" into its discourse, it is kept out. Indeed water rights need to be seen as part of human rights.

There seem to be two areas of concern with respect to gender and water. One is building on and mobilising - information-gathering, alliance-building and knowledge-dissemination - local, village-level success stories, of which there are several in every State. 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.

According to Sara Ahmed, the Water Act is technical and bureaucratic - it is myopic, insensitive and ignorant of the diversity and complexity of water needs. It does not have a community-based approach. She says that the government urgently needs to change the way it manages water as different departments and Ministries are involved without even a common ground.

Says Sara Ahmed: "India is huge and the issues are complex. There are droughts and floods at the same time in different parts. There are river linking issues concerning State boundaries, complex problems dealing with large and small dams, and intense debate on water harvesting issues. In the political context there are competing views on the way the State and technocrats look at macro projects. And there are views within views. Civil society and NGOs talk about a decentralised approach to water management initiatives with women at the centre. And then there are the donor agencies coming in with their own strategies. That is the broad picture and it is within this complex situation that there needs to be a dialogue." According to her, the Water Policy hardly reflects this complex water situation. Unless it reflects the ground realities, women will continue to bear the entire burden of having to provide water to the family.

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