The drought that India has suffered in recent weeks shows that water security has become a major challenge in the country. Women are more acutely affected by drought, particularly those living in rural areas. This results in deepened gender inequalities in education, work and health. One way to efficiently tackle the inequality resulting from water insecurity is to involve women in decision-making process. This aligns with 5.A of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): “Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws”. In rural India, involvement of female in decisions related to natural resources-dependent activities – namely farm and water management – is low.
What is the Impact of Water Scarcity on Women?
Drought is a natural water-related disaster which happens every year in some countries. However, in the context of climate change, rainfall is expected to increase slightly in South Asia, but also to become more and more variable. It could potentially make droughts more common (Challinor and al. 2006) leading to alarming consequences on the population, particularly girls and women.
Drought is associated with low crop yields and therefore hard economic conditions for many families in rural areas. To cope with the lack of resources, a natural strategy for men and women is to move away from the village to find a non-farm job. A UNDP study found that women in Maharashtra and Orissa are more constrained than men in their access to non-farm income-generated activities. This is mostly due to the burden of childcare they face, which prevents them from leaving their children alone behind for long hours (UNDP, 2014). The study also demonstrates that in time of drought, in rice-cultivation areas, fewer women are employed.
During negative rainfall shocks, agricultural activities mostly carried-out by women are often replaced by other means. For example, farmers can change the crop establishment method of rice from transplanting (an activity mostly carried-out by women and which can be only conducted in flooded fields), to broadcasting. This results in a widening wage gap between men and women during drought periods (UNDP, 2014).
Finally, the economic consequences of water scarcity on women also relates to time usage. In India, women are traditionally burdened with fetching water. It is estimated that women in many developing countries – including India – walk for an average of about six milometers each day to collect water (UNFPA 2002). During drought, the drying up of nearby bodies of water increases the time spent fetching water. Therefore, the additional time spent to carry out this task cuts into the time available to engage in income generating activities, making women more vulnerable (UNDP, 2014).
Impact on Health and Hygiene
Water scarcity has also huge consequences on women’s health and hygiene. First, the distance and the physical effort of carrying a jar of water on their head create joint pain, and back, feet or posture problems (The Water Project). Moreover, UNDP’s study also suggests that women are more worried of food insecurity than men, as they are the primary caretaker of children. Along with the stress created by the burden of fetching water to ensure water security for the household, drought can have major psycho-social impacts on women (UNDP, 2014). Finally, Indian women also face hygiene issues, particularly during their menses where access to sanitary supplies becomes more restricted. This is compounded by the fact that bathing during water scarcity is difficult.
Access to Education
Using the National Fertility and Health Survey, L. Zimmermann demonstrates that more girls than boys drop out of school during drought periods. She attributes the absence of young girls to low perceived net benefits of education. In times of drought, parents prefer their daughter to help their mother with increased household chores, such as collecting water (Zimmermann, 2011). A report of Dasra also mentions that 23% of Indian girls drop out of school on reaching puberty. Lack of water sanitation facilities plays a role in this, worsening their potential as future worker (Dasra, 2015).
Safety and Security
In 2011, Sekhri and Storeygard (2011) examined the effect of local precipitation shocks on dowry deaths, domestic violence and sexual harassment. They find that a rainfall deficit of 1 meter/year below the local mean results in 29% increase in reported dowry deaths and 18% increase in domestic violence. Sexual harassment, however, decrease during drought periods. They attribute these results to a ‘consumption smoothing mechanism’. The acute economic distress generated by dry shocks increases crimes against women, which can help smoothing consumption. On the contrary, leisure-related crimes like sexual harassment decrease (Sekhri and Storeygard, 2011). Moreover, due to hard economic conditions and along with the lack of other jobs opportunities, some women are forced into sex work. The UNDP study found cases of young girls who were pushed into prostitution as young girls because of the lack of job availability (UNDP, 2014).
Women as Water and Climate Decision Makers: A Potential Solution?
Climate change makes water insecurity in India an even bigger issue. There is a need to involve women in decision-making processes regarding the management of natural resources, food production and water, and more generally at the political level. Participation of Indian women in decision-making, representation and leadership level would give them greater adaptive capability and responsiveness to the threat. For example, increase in women’s political representation could result in harsher punishment and more policing efforts directed towards crimes against women, and consequently decrease them (Sekhri and Storeygard, 2011). This could result in improved gender responsive budgeting during water scarcity, which would mitigate the risks they face.
Bundelkhand Women: A Success Story
The case of Bundelkhand (Uttar Pradesh/Madhya Pradesh) is one such example where women have been included in water and climate-related decision making. Evidence shows that women in the region spend three to nine hours per day walking to fetch water. To tackle these issues, some local women created Self-Help Groups (SHGs). These informal water committees (pani panchayats), appointed 500 jal sahelis (literally ‘water friends’) who meet to discuss water-related issues. They were supported by a local organization to helped organize and train them. This organization designed a water literacy program to teach them about the water table, the reason behind water scarcity and strategies to overcome it.
Since the introduction of such pani panchayats, Bundelkhand no longer faces water insecurity. Initiatives included the construction check dams to catch rain water, repair of hand pumps and development of a system to recharge wells with rainwater with minimal loss. It took account of the water needs of the village, including drinking, washing, showering, cooking, but also the irrigation of crops and water for livestock. The project has greatly improved the life of Bundelkhand women, as they now spend less time fetching water. Consequently, their income has increased.
In the words of Ramwati, a jal saheli: “In our village, we would not be able to send our girls to school as they would have to queue for fetching water. After we started working on water, we send our girls to school on time”. Moreover, men have understood that the women were doing a phenomenal job, so they are now listening to women regarding the management of natural resources (India Water Portal, 2016).
Moving Forward: Building on the Successes of Bundelkand
The case of Bundelkhand demonstrates the importance of including women in water management-related decision making. The use of water by either sex differs, and the inclusion of women in decision making helps address gender-specific usage. Replicating the pani panchayat model across India will help generate awareness of local water issues that have little awareness.
Outcomes produced by this model can be enhanced by including men. Another jal saheli, Imartibai, said “These men don’t understand the meaning of water. They think water is used only for irrigation. As if washing their clothes, utensils and cooking require no water. If I don’t go to the well every day, who will fetch the water?” (The Better India, 2019). Men need to be informed about the different uses of water, the risks that women face when they fetch water. Educating men is critical in tackling this issue for the whole community. Men may also be less reluctant to restrict their female relatives participating in such initiatives, leading to even greater outcomes.
Finally, it is critical to include marginalized women in these projects who face barriers participating in water management projects. These barriers are often impacted by class, income, caste, age or ethnic background. Joshi and Fawcett (2001) analyze the efficiency of some projects in increasing women’s participation in the management of domestic water resources. They found a beneficiary who was the sole financial provider for her children. She could not participate in training sessions of World Bank water project SWAJAL, which offers non-formal education income generation programs and hygiene education. She also had low income, and her children were too young to support with her labor-intensive agriculture.
1. Athena Infonomics, Learning Study on Potential for Market Linkage and Rural Advisory Services for Smallholder Farmers in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, 2018.
2. Challinor, et. al., Indian Monsoon: Contribution to Chapter 4 of the Stern Review, 2006.
3. Dasra, Dignity for Her: Empowering India’s Adolescent Girls through Improved Sanitation and Hygiene 2015.
4. India Water Portal, “Bundelkhand Women Forge Friendship for Water”, 2016
5. Joshi D., Fawcett B., Water Projects and Women’s Empowerment 2001.
6. Sekhri S., Storeygard A., The Impact of Climate Variability on Crimes against Women: Dowry Deaths in India, 2011.
7. UNDP, Blame it on the Rain? Gender Differentiated Impacts of Drought on Agricultural Wage and Work in India, December 2014.
8. Zimmermann, L., Remember when it Rained? Gender Discrimination in Elementary School Enrollment in India, 2011.