Water security is not gender neutral
Prof. Mahbuba Nasreen writes about the gendered nature of water usage in an urban water system. In this research - presented at the 6th International Water Conference 28 January 2021 - Prof. Nasreen and colleagues call for water management to be more responsive to gendered access and usage, and for women to be key decision-makers in these changes.
Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, is surrounded by rivers like the Buriganga and the Turag, which are crucial water sources for people within and around the city. However, over time, these rivers have become polluted by industrial and human waste. The poorest and the most vulnerable are forced to use the toxic river water for their daily water needs. For the communities living adjacent to the river, poor water quality and related health impacts are a major issue. These communities face disproportionate gender-specific health and economic stress, with women doing most of the household chores and bearing the burden of water management.
Where did we go and what did we do?
We have conducted a study on the Turag river system area and collected gender disaggregated water use data along 12 sites. These sites represented upstream, midstream and downstream of a river adjacent to a major urban center in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Upstream locations of Kashimpur and Konabari hosted a mixture of readymade garment (RMG) factories and rural communities, whereas midstream locations of Bhadam and Bakral were more focused on industries. The downstream locations had worse quality of water, but greater population density and greater interaction with the water. Household questionnaires, focus group discussions, water use behaviour surveys and key informant interviews were applied to study the relationships of people with water.
Gendered responsibility of water-related domestic work
The findings indicate that women (50%) and girls (30.3%) carry out the highest number of household activities compared to men (16.7%) and boys (3%). Women (97.1%) shoulder the main responsibility for collecting water for household necessity more than their male counterpart (29.6%). Girls (10.4%) are also engaged in collecting water sometimes alone or accompanied by their mothers. However, only 5% boys are given the responsibility of fetching water.
All the water-related domestic activities were carried out by the women. It takes 1.5 - 2.5 hours for cooking, 10-30 minutes for washing clothes, 20-35 minutes for washing utensils, 10-30 minutes for bathing. However, the time required for collecting and storing water can vary between 10 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the time of day, the crowd at the water point, and the distance of the water point from home.
Photograph: (Clockwise from top-left) Low-income settlement along the bank of the Turag river; Plastics and household waste dumped near the river; Hanging toilets along the river; Women and children washing dishes and laundry using river water.
Water use behaviour and women’s health
A woman’s health is particularly affected by carrying water. The physical burden associated with carrying heavy water containers includes back pain, skin diseases and others. Backache is the most common physical problem women encounter from carrying the heavy water containers. Skin diseases occur in those working directly with river water. Carrying a heavy load of containers and completing roundtrip more than twice a day is also very tiring and can have severe health consequences that can compound existing illnesses. Heavy physical labour and river pollution can also negatively impact the health of pregnant women and contribute to miscarriage.
Other challenges associated with fetching water
Social conflicts with neighbours arise while competing for limited water. Women and girls feel uncomfortable taking water from someone else’s water source, and sometimes the owner of the water pump/source refuses to give access to water. Women feel unsafe while collecting water, especially if the water point is located in long distance. There are long queues for water collection. The collected water is sometimes insufficient to complete all the water related chores. Sometimes women have to cross the roads/highways which can be dangerous due to the density and speed of vehicles and absence of safe crossing points.
Gender based violence (physical/sexual harassment) are also often faced by women in these duties, and particularly by adolescent girls when they go to fetch water.
Seasonal water use differences between genders
The river water quality suffers during the dry season, where we find that the interaction with river water is lower in both men and women. However, women use the river water even in the dry season for household tasks, whereas men use it only when necessary. In the wet season, men engage with the river water more for navigation and recreation whereas women do so for household tasks.
Establishing gender-sensitive water points which can be easily accessed is necessary, as women and girls have to use polluted river water for cooking and other domestic chores. They often have to travel long distances to collect water, where they are often faced with harassments by men and boys. It is necessary, depending on location, to increase the number of government water points and implement a strong management policy (reducing disparities in access and enhancing services). Also, the water points must be constructed with special consideration for persons with disabilities and the elderly.
The government should play a regulatory role to improve access to water points through the use of mapping technologies. Significant investments must be made for the development of the infrastructure, as well as on installation of more water points to support expanding urban centers with potable water. A standard water tariff system could be established, which considers different income groups. When a community pays for a shared resource, ownership of the point belongs to everyone and the sustainability of the service is ensured.
Women have substantial knowledge about water resources, quality, and storage methods due to their primary role as water managers at the household level. Therefore, women's participation in water management interventions should be ensured, and their strategic and practical needs regarding water should be prioritised.
The research is part of a collaboration between the University of Oxford, the Institute of Water and Flood Management (IWFM) of BUET and the Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies (IDMVS), University of Dhaka under the REACH project funded by UK Aid from the UK Government (www.reachwater.org.uk). The research was conducted by Mphil researcher Shamima Prodhan and supervised by Dr Mahbuba Nasreen (IDMVS). The findings were presented by the author in the 6th International Water Conference held on 28 January, 2021.
Professor Mahbuba Nasreen is Director of the Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the South Asia Regional Lead for GRRIPP.