Is water a female issue?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

Water pump in Africa. Some 30% of the world's population still do not have access to safe drinking water and 60% lack safe sanitation. [Shutterstock/Franco Volpato]

Around 30% of the world’s population still do not have access to safe drinking water and 60% do not have safe sanitation, but lack of access to sanitation affects women more than men, Bruno Tisserand explains in the aftermath of World Water Week, hosted in Stockholm last week.

Bruno Tisserand is the president of EurEau, representing Europe’s drinking water and waste water service operators.

Women and water. What is the connection? Yes, we all need water to survive, but the link between women and water goes deeper than hydration and crop irrigation.

By 2015, 68% of the world’s population had access to improved sanitation facilities, including flush toilets or covered latrines, compared with 54% in 1990. But 2.4 billion people still do not have toilets or latrines.

Lack of access to sanitation affects women more than men. Women are usually responsible for collecting enough water for a family’s daily cooking and hygiene needs. Even with improved access, women still have to travel to collect water for the home.

2.1 billion people, or 30% of the world’s population, still do not have access to safe drinking water and 60% do not have safe sanitation. The WHO highlights in its latest report that good hygiene practices are the simplest and most effective way of preventing the spread of disease.

As women are usually responsible for assisting children, the elderly and the sick, they are more exposed to microorganisms. Good basic hygiene – and therefore access to clean water – is vital to ensuring that carers remain healthy.

Access to safe water, adequate sanitation and improved hygiene practices help prevent disease. Diarrhea diseases alone account for 3.6% of the global burden of disease and cause 1.5 million deaths each year (WHO, 2012). An estimated 58% of this burden, or 842,000 deaths per year, is attributable to the poor quality of water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WHO, 2014).

Sanitation is critical for preventing many diseases including diarrhoea, intestinal worms, schistosomiasis (a parasite) and trachoma (bacteria). Ensuring universal access to sanitation in households, healthcare facilities and schools is essential in reducing disease, improving nutritional outcomes, enhancing safety, well-being and educational prospects, especially for women and girls (WHO).

So why sanitation and education?

Women in developing nations can positively alter their lives and the lives of their families and their compatriots through education. Because of cultures of seeing menstruating girls as being ‘unclean’ or because of a lack of basic toilet facilities or sanitary products, girls can miss up to eight days each term, causing them to lag behind or drop out of education altogether. For each year a woman stays in school, her first child is delayed by 10 months.

Women’s education impacts the demographic of the family, which is especially important in developing worlds. The larger the family, the more likely it is that that the family will fall into the poverty trap. If the family cannot afford to send their children to school and get an education, those children in turn end up having larger families and the cycle continues.

If women spend more time in school, they are more likely to climb out of this trap. Each year of secondary education allows a woman to boost her income by 25 percent. Higher income and fewer children give women in developing countries more opportunity.

The importance of education goes further than making people more educated and involved in the world around them. Women especially feel more empowered and ultimately have a better chance at thriving if they are given the opportunity to stay in school.

EurEau believes that everyone has the right to access to water in sufficient quantity and quality to meet their basic consumption and sanitation needs. In Europe, our members provide 95% of people with drinking water services while 86% of people are connected to waste water services.

A gender-sensitive approach must be included in the management of water resources that enhances and strengthens the important role women play in the acquisition, conservation and use of water. Because of their crucial position in water and sanitation management, women should be at the heart of strategies to improve access to water and sanitation. Yet, their voices are not always taken into account and supply and sanitation programs neglect to build on their current and potential role in this area.

This needs to change. Water, sanitation and hygiene enable women to participate in the development of their communities, including, of course, decision-making and water supply and sanitation systems.

Both the EU and EurEau members cooperate with developing countries to transfer knowledge and technical assistance.

During our annual congress later this year, we will discuss how the European water sector can help realise all of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Women are key to these goals and they will be central to our discussions.

The water and sanitation sectors contribute to efforts to redress inequalities and can have a positive impact on the social, political and economic status of women. Well-targeted services can be designed to improve the health and safety of women and their families, allowing them to fully engage in social, economic and political activities. Women should be included in decision-making on water supply and sanitation.