In many cultures women and girls are responsible for supplying their households with water. The task sounds simple but it places extreme demands on many women and girls who must physically retrieve water from a river, communal well, or other source and transport it to their home in containers. The process can be physically grueling and so time consuming that other activities must be neglected.
In the desert regions of Gujarat, India, the water table is often 900 feet below ground, and many villages have no water source at all. Gujarati women often walk 16 to 20 kilometers a day in search of water. The repetitive back-and-forth trek takes three to four hours every single day.
The many hours spent in water retrieval deprive some women of the opportunity for educational, income-earning, or other productive activities. Those pursuits might help them to escape the cycle of poverty that is prevalent in many communities where individual water transport is the norm.
The dominant role of females in this distribution system highlights an inequity in many water management programs. At the local level, it is often women who possess the knowledge of their community’s water requirements, source locations, storage methods, variability issues, and other essential information. However, women are politically marginalized in many of these same communities—so water supply policies may be managed without input from those who know them best.
Fortunately, women are taking an increasingly prominent role as water and environmental decision makers. In Gujarat, the 500,000-member-strong Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is working to bring life-giving water to desert realms and ease the burden on the women who currently carry it.
SEWA programs focus on conserving what little water is available through watershed management schemes and rainwater collection facilities—including rainwater harvesting and underground storage tanks. They also advocate better water distribution systems, including supply by vehicle and, when possible, expanded piped distribution systems.