Today is World Water Day — a day devoted to raising awareness about the scarcity of fresh water on the planet. That it comes in the middle of Women’s History Month and a couple weeks after International Women’s Day is both utterly fitting and utterly depressing. Even as technology has suffused our world, allowing me to connect with you in the blink of an eye, around the globe from India to Kenya to Peru, women and girls travel extraordinary distances in extremely harsh conditions to collect water for drinking, washing and cooking. And as precious H2O grows scarcer in certain regions, women’s jobs as the providers of family water grow more difficult. They travel farther, wait in longer lines, and suffer more illnesses related to a lack of safe water. Even in relatively affluent countries, women bear the brunt of water crises — like last September in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, when women traveled great distances and stood in the sweltering heat for hours to get precious water coupons which would only sometimes result in receiving their rations.
According to UNICEF about 1.2 billion people have gained access to safe water since 1990, yet that number doesn’t come close to meeting the Millennium Development Goals, which would cut the number of people around the globe with unsafe drinking water and no sanitation by half. Currently, every year, an estimated 1.5 million children under the age of five die from diarrhea, largely associated with a lack of safe drinking water and basic sanitation.
Here is a description by Caryn Boddie, an American writer who traveled to Kaikungu, Kenya to assess water-treatment issues and found that local women regularly walked 11 hours to fetch water for their families: “…during the dry season, the women have had to wake up at 2 A.M. on many mornings, leave their husbands and children still sleeping in bed, and go off to fetch water in the dark. They have walked to the Watumba River or have gone to buy from others who have wells. After they access the water, they carry it home, not returning home until 1 P.M. When the women complete the journey, they are too tired to do anything else in their homes or on their shambas (farms). Sometimes, they have walked to get water and back without any breakfast or lunch.”
It’s not just a matter of sheer neglect that has kept so many families without safe water, but also the fact that many water projects — spearheaded by governments and non-profit groups — don’t work for the communities they are supposed to serve. (Sometimes wells are drilled but not outfitted with pumps, or wells which would require residents to pay for water are drilled close to a natural (and free) water spring and end up endangering it.) Women continue to travel to ensure their families’ supplies, and water engineering has become an explicit feminist issue.
Among those on the forefront of the movement to address the problem is Susan Murcott, a water engineer from MIT, who works with the women in rural communities to create their own water solutions. (Murcott was the focus of Yoko Arisaka’s essay “Women Carrying Water: At the Crossroads of Technology and Critical Theory” (PDF) several years ago.) In a small community in north Burma, she introduced residents to home water purification systems, where most of the local hospital’s patients suffered preventable waterborne diseases. The success of the systems led to the residents designing and building their own water treatment system. This month, in an article in the Journal of International Development, she describes her more recent work with communities in Nepal and Ghana in what she’s calling “co-evolutionary engineering design.”
So on this day of appreciating the liquid at the center of all life, let’s raise a toast to unsung heroes like Murcott, and the women who trek mountains to bring water home to their families.