The Value of Water: Feminist Perspectives in the Time of COVID-19

Paula Rudnicka, Sr. Technical advisor for Gender Integration, PCI, A Global Communities Partner

It has been over a year since COVID-19 brought much of the world to a halt and exacerbated  the most pressing development challenges, including inadequate and unsustainable access to water. According to pre-pandemic estimates, more than 2 billion people around the globe were unable to access safely managed drinking water services and 3 billion lacked basic handwashing facilities. With global lockdowns, economic recession, and diverted public resources, the number of people experiencing water insecurity is expected to rise. This is particularly true for communities most dramatically affected by worsening manifestations of climate change, such as droughts, floods, and hurricanes.

The pandemic has also aggravated stark gender inequalities within our societies, many of which are compounded by chronic underinvestment in water and sanitation services. Before COVID-19 struck, women and girls were already bearing an arduous burden for water collection in 8 out of 10 households with water off premises. The time and energy spent carrying heavy water vessels for miles at a time, often at night, was already inhibiting their ability to pursue education, participate in income-generating activities, or engage in politics and community affairs. Today, with increased demands for water for hygiene and cleaning, and with compromised water supplies in many communities, this burden is expanding even further along with mounting caretaking responsibilities.

The act of water collection has become more precarious too. Before the pandemic, women traveling to and from water points already faced serious risks of injury and gender-based violence. Today, they confront an added threat of COVID-19 transmission while waiting in high-density lines at water pumps or using shared water facilities. Emerging evidence is also exposing the dangers of sextortion, whereby water vendors coerce women or girls into exchanging sex for water when water is scarce or when they cannot pay for it. This is a devastating but perhaps not surprising phenomenon, considering that the poorest people in the world are paying the highest price for safe water—sometimes half of their daily incomes. Given the severity of current economic shocks and their adverse impact on women’s economic advancement, the risks of sexual exploitation in securing water are increasingly high. Needless to say, water insecurity causes a cascade of negative health outcomes for women and girls, from food insecurity and poor nutrition, through inability to fight infectious diseases, to distinct sexual and reproductive health challenges. Water stress may also lead to intra-household conflicts and contribute to the risk of intimate partner violence—now escalated by stay-at-home orders and curfews.

The pandemic has reminded us—time and again—that women often face disproportionate effects of crisis and instability. But women are also powerful, fiercely knowledgeable, and resilient agents of change. Research indicates that women share water more equitably than men do and that their involvement in shaping water policies, institutions, and projects leads to more effective and sustainable delivery and use of water services. Yet, although women typically bear the brunt of water management for their households, they are frequently excluded from meaningful participation in water governance processes due to traditional gender norms. This makes related decision-making less equitable and less effective. Research also suggests that enhancing access to water can significantly reduce women’s workloads and advance broader gender equality goals if interventions are designed with careful consideration of gender power dynamics and in line with the principle of equity. Data from a project “Restoring Vibrant Villages and Environments (REVIVE),” implemented in Ethiopia by Project Concern International, a Global Communities Partner, demonstrated that construction and rehabilitation of 84 water systems in some of the most vulnerable districts of Bale Zone in Oromia reduced the time women and girls spent fetching water by 60%.

Taking this evidence to heart, Global Communities designs and implements women-centered and gender-responsive interventions which aim to reduce barriers to accessing water and promote women’s leadership and engagement in water processes. In doing so, Global Communities ensures that women do not bear disproportionate burdens for maintaining water solutions, such as community water points. This was one of the goals of our USAID-funded “Watershed Management and Conservation” program in the Dry Corridor of Honduras—a region experiencing high levels of rural poverty and hazardous water shortages associated with its extraordinary vulnerability to climate change and variability. To ensure sufficient volume and quality of water for consumption and irrigation in the departments of La Paz, Intibucá, and Lempira, Global Communities worked in close collaboration with local governments, civil society organizations, and community members to develop and implement truly collaborative action plans for watershed restoration and protection. In line with this participatory approach, Global Communities actively promoted women’s participation in water administration and governance. To this end, we organized seven theater events to raise public awareness about the importance of efficient water use and to encourage women and youth to assume decision-making positions in water organizations. We also trained women in water supply system operation and maintenance. These interventions proved effective in increasing women’s skills and self-esteem. Today, women comprise 33% of the water board administration in the communities where we serve, and many hold decision-making positions. As part of the project’s impact, women-led water boards have effectively concluded field construction of fences around water sources, improved water intakes, and enhanced water delivery and storage systems, benefitting thousands of families.

As we celebrate this year’s World Water Day and reflect on the value of water beyond its price, we affirm our commitment to apply a gender lens throughout each of our water programs not only to ensure that water services meet women’s and girls’ needs, but also to accelerate progress toward gender equality more broadly. It is true that “water is life” and an indispensable force for human development, peace, and prosperity. But water is also power, which belongs in the hands of people regardless of their gender, race, class, and other aspects of our identity. Let’s share it wisely, equitably, and in harmony with our natural environment.