How water crisis deepens gender inequality

Water scarcity, especially in informal settlements, affects all aspects of women's life - income, health, education and overall well-being.

Rani is a 12-year-old young girl studying in 6th grade. She has lived all her life in Ambedkar Nagar in Colaba. Her day usually begins at 5:00 am. In this informal settlement, water comes for two hours and given her family size of five, she and her mother have to ensure that is available for all. Rani’s mother is a daily wage worker and leaves for her work as early as 6:00-6:30 am. It is up to Rani to ensure enough water for the household.

Kabhi-kabhi paani nahi aata hai time pe, isliye main school se chutti leti hu,” (There are days when water does not come on time and therefore, I have to take leave from school), says Rani.

Over half of Mumbai’s residents live in informal settlements, where access to hygienic water and improved sanitation is limited. The burden of collecting water primarily falls on women and girls.

This leads to time poverty and thereby impacts educational and economic opportunities. Time spent on water and related duties restricts women from engaging in paid work, which can potentially contribute to the family’s economic status and well-being.

One of the primary reasons that urban settlements face inequitable water distribution is because they are not formally recognised. This results in informal water distribution that may increase the risk of water-borne diseases. Access to clean water heavily impacts maternal and child health as well.

Expensive potable water

Approximately 6.5 million people out of 12.5 million in Mumbai reside in a neighbourhood without easy access to water. The BMC’s water for all policy aims for access to water for every citizen. However, the informal settlements shall be provided with water through standpost connections, wherein common taps will be shared by 15 households.

The catch is that water connections are conditional and subject to the dwelling having a No Objection Certificate (NOC). Given the public administration system, it is difficult to procure these certificates due to bureaucratic lags such as sorting out permission letters, seeking approval and getting into action.

woman washing vessels outside home
Women spend a lot of time procuring water not just for drinking and cooking, but also for household chores such as washing clothes and utensils. Pic: Shiboni Sundar

The consequences of the same are strikingly visible in Jamblipada, a settlement in Kalina, where residents purchase drinking water every single day or draw water from underground pipes by using motorised pumps.

Some people, mostly women, also stand in long queues in other neighbourhoods and pay the water vendor additional amount, so that they can have access to basic drinking water.

Residents complained that they do not get adequate water supply. In some cases, they get water, which is contaminated and foul smelling, a health-risk.

This impacts women, girls and children as they spend a large amount of time at homes while the men step out of their homes for work.

Most people in Jamblipada were living without water supply for around 15 days in the month of April. To get water during this time by any available means, was not only hazardous for health, but also hugely expensive.

On a larger, macroeconomic scale, the most vulnerable and underprivileged are most affected by water scarcity.

Impact of water scarcity on sanitation

When this correspondent visited Dharavi, Byculla and Jamblipada, one could witness clear link between access to water and sanitation. Residents used the community toilets, few metres away from their homes. They need to queue up early in the morning. Men usually get to use the toilets first given their jobs and work, resulting in women standing for long hours in the queue.

“Hum subah 5 baje se line mein khade rehte hai, shauchalay ka istemaal karne ke liye kyunki paani sirf thode time ke liye aata hai” (We stand in line since 5 in the morning as water supply is for a limited period of time), says a resident of Hanuman Nagar.

The NFHS-5 data of Mumbai suburban reveals that only 62% of residents have an improved sanitation facility, which means having a flush to a piped sewer system, septic tanks, biogas latrine. However, there is no clear mention, if the sanitation facilities have a source of water. A sanitation system without adequate water facility is redundant as it does not solve the root of the problem.

A report by Praja Foundation states that only 25% public toilets are for women and the rest are for men. Moreover, 42% of the households don’t have access to toilets and a majority of them use public or community toilets. A BMC survey conducted in 2015 revealed that 78% of the toilets reported to not having a proper water connection.

informal settlements along mithi river
Informal settlements along Mithi River. As the residents depend on water through unorganised means, they spend much more on it, and also face several health risks. Pic: Shiboni Sundar

Some households have individual toilets, but the drainage system is very close to their homes. Women wash clothes and utensils right next to where the food is kept and hundreds of people walk by every single day.

In this case as well, women are much more susceptible to diseases and infection because their exposure to contaminated water is for prolonged periods of time. “Ab kya kar sakte hai , khaana toh khaana padega, zindagi nahi ruk sakti,” (What can be done, we have to eat food and life cannot stop here) says Priya.  

Read more: How a survey on lack of toilets highlighted issues we never knew

The problem of water scarcity is growing. A 22% increase in dropouts has been reported in schools due to lack of water facilities and clean toilets in schools.

It particularly becomes difficult for girls, who are menstruating. This results in a number of problems such as infections, rashes and Urinary Tract Infection (UTI). With limited toilet facilities, women and girls are subject to open spaces which in-turn causes a feeling of shame and embarrassment and in some cases-sexual harassment.

Despite toilet facilities, girls prefer staying at home due to unclean premises.

Water and sociocultural power structures

For women in specific, water crisis is personal. “Water is female because women are responsible for gathering water,”says Mridula Ramesh, author of Watershed. As men are termed as the ‘breadwinners’ of households, women are essentially termed as ‘care-givers.’ Part of that care-giving is ensuring enough resources for a family to survive -drinking, cooking and sanitation.

“In the efforts to get water for families, they often face consequences such as illness, lack of education , death in the most severe cases,” says Sanjay Wijesekera (UNICEF’s global head of WASH). Water collection and finding a safe drinking water resource consumes a large part of the day for women.  

One of the primary goals of UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is number 6, which focusses on Clean Water and Sanitation. A report on the progress of SDG in Mumbai reveals that even amongst households with access to piped water on premises, frequency of access can be a problem, with 10.7% of slum households having access to water for less than 2 hours.

None of the indicators really account for the quality of water flowing in or the methods that are adopted for water purification is not mentioned.

Rapid urbanisation has led to an expansion of industries which has led to an increase in the demand for water. Industries further contaminate water that cannot be consumed by humans. This further adds to water scarcity.

In order to meet the urban water challenges, it is imperative for the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) to step up and ensure access to safe drinking water and sanitation is provided to all. There must be a shift in the way urban water systems are managed.

However, before that, larger problems of social exclusion, social justice and urban governance must be acknowledged. So that, children like Rani don’t miss school to fill water for the family.

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