New Delhi: “We fetch water from a handpump that is situated at a walking distance of almost 20 minutes. My daughter and I wait for our turn for at least an hour because that handpump is also used by many other residents. We do this at least twice a day. It is not that we don’t have water taps in our home. But the quality of water that we get is very poor. The supply line carries water polluted by the faulty sewer line nearby and waste coming from and domestic, agricultural, and industrial sources. My mother-in-law and I became very ill by drinking the polluted tap water and my daughter used to have a constant stomach ache. So, we fetch the groundwater from that handpump for our family not just for drinking and cooking purposes but also for sanitation and hygiene purposes because we avoid using the polluted tap water as much as we can,” said Sunita Devi, a 43-year-old resident of Budgara village of Bijnor District in Uttar Pradesh, who along with her 14-year-old daughter is responsible for clean water supply of a household of 6 members. This is not the story of just Sunita Devi and many other women in her village, but a large number of women and girls across the country face the same situation. According to United Nations Water, without safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities at home and in places of work and education, it is disproportionately harder for women and girls to lead safe, productive, healthy lives. On World Water Day, we speak with experts about the impact of lack of water and sanitation and hygiene facilities on the health of women and girls.
While talking to NDTV, Poonam Sewak, Vice President – Program and Partnerships, Safe Water Network, nonprofit organisation, said that water supply hurdles lead to substantial economic and social stress on a household that impacts women more. She said,
In rural areas and urban slums, women and girls have primary responsibility for the management of household water supply, the lack of which impacts their health, sanitation and hygiene. For instance, the time and effort spent in water collection hits women’s income-generation ability, impacts the attendance of girls in schools and interferes with the time required to tend to the sick at home. In households with no access to clean water, 80 per cent of water is collected by the women. The lack of water security and sanitation at home has far-reaching health consequences, especially during pregnancy, menstruation, and child-rearing. Women and girls are more vulnerable to abuse and attack while walking to and using a toilet or open defecation site.
Zarina Screwvala, Co-founder at Swades Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to improving the standard of living in rural areas, highlighted that women and girls walk from one to five kilometres to the nearest water source every day. She said,
Everyone is impacted by water. Its scarcity adds immense difficulties to all life. However, I have seen the terrible struggle of our rural women and their elder daughters when a village has no source of drinking water. In the dry season, rural women take multiple trips in a day to carry water for their families. This daily struggle impacts them physically, mentally, emotionally, and economically. As a result of carrying heavy pots and jars filled with water, rural women develop joint problems and posture problems. They cannot also devote enough time to their children and families. I have seen rural women who want so much more in their lives. They want to work. However, this remains a dream for many, as they spend most of their time fetching water. International Development Enterprises (IDE) estimated that Indian women spend 15 crore work days every year fetching water, equivalent to a national loss of income of Rs.100 crores. This impacts not just rural women but also the rural and national economy.
According to the Central Ground Water Board of the Government of India, currently, there are 839 overexploited and 226 Critical zones in the country. As the water table is dropping and aquifers are drying up and other natural water sources are getting contaminated with bio and chemical pollutants, an exceedingly large number of people are becoming vulnerable to waterborne diseases as they rely on unsafe piped water, said Dr Bhagya Lakshmi S, Consultant Obstetrics, Gynaecologist and Laparoscopic Surgeon, Yashoda Hospitals Hyderabad. While talking about why water security is critical for women and girls everywhere, she said,
Drinking water helps maintain the balance of body fluids as the body is composed of about 60 per cent water. It plays an important role in various phases of women’s life. A large amount of water intake has a role in reducing menstrual bleeding duration, use of pain killers, and pain intensity during the menstrual period. During pregnancy, women need more water than an average person in order to form amniotic fluid, produce extra blood, build new tissue, carry nutrients, enhance digestion, and flush out wastes and toxins. It is recommended to drink 8-12 glasses of water a day, or 2.3 litres. It decreases constipation, reduces swelling, softens skin, decreases the risk of urinary tract infection, decreases the risk of preterm labour and preterm birth. All the good stuff in the prenatal vitamins and healthy foods consumed every day are shipped to the foetus with water, which helps the body to absorb essential nutrients into the cells and transports vitamins, minerals and hormones to the blood cells. It is those nutrient-rich blood cells that reach the placenta and ultimately to the baby. Drinking plenty of water is very important in postpartum as it helps in the healing of the body and production of breast milk is enhanced.
While talking about solutions, Ms Sewak said that when it comes to community-level water and sanitation systems, women often play a role as change-makers. Keeping this in consideration, Safe Water Network has trained 548 women to become water ATM operators and 152 Water ATM entrepreneurs across villages in Telangana, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Uttar Pradesh, who manage their water stores and disseminate WASH education to the local community. Ms Sewak highlighted initiatives like Water ATMs and building Water Knowledge Resource Center (WKRC) for building awareness on inclusive and equitable access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) practices benefitting communities to improve public health, especially the lives of women and girls. She said,
Significant health improvements have been noticed amongst women and their families as water security for them improved due to water ATMs. Not only this, girls in those communities are attending classes more regularly and women are earning a livelihood not only via the Water ATMs but also by setting up food and tea stalls near these ATMs.
Ms Screwvala said that while in many cases women rely on natural sources of water such as ponds, lakes, rivers, or streams, many others have a common stand post or a hand pump. She added that bringing clean water to the household is very important and people are required to come together to work in this regard along with the NGOs and the government. She said,
In Raigad, Maharashtra, where Swades Foundation has been working for many years, we have provided taps for potable drinking water in every home. We have also constructed check dams, open wells, recharge ponds, bore well recharge structures, promoted plantations etc., to ensure the sustainability of water sources. Additionally, constructing loose boulder structures, bunds and recharge trenches by community members also helps the sustainability of water. For instance, in a village where we work, we have seen the community coming together and digging over 500 trenches that not only prevent water runoff but also recharge the groundwater. Recently, I met some rural women from Medhe village in the Tala Taluka, Raigad district, together with the men from the village, they helped build a check dam. This, not only helped in water recharge but also the community members had enough water to store for their animals.
She added that along with providing water taps at home, it is imperative to restore the quality of the groundwater and other water sources. She said,
The key component for access to water is adequate and continuous availability of water. Given the planet Earth is witnessing the challenges of global warming and extreme climatic changes, it becomes critical to involve communities, not just in rural but urban areas too and create ownership for optimum usage, conservation and harvesting of water. Additionally, overall ecological balance through soil and water conservation, tree plantation and sustainable agriculture are essential for ensuring long term access to water. Access to clean drinking water is a responsibility that needs to be shouldered by all stakeholders. To bring our rural communities out of water scarcity, the community members, non-profits, corporates, and the government have to continue their efforts tirelessly.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, that is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.