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In search of water

By Seema Kulkarni

The crisis of drinking water is a crisis in the lives of poor and marginalised women. The impact of drought and scarcity is felt most severely by women due to their gender-defined roles in collecting and utilising water for the survival of their households. Often, the other side of improved productivity due to irrigation also means increased labour for women

All over the world women share a special relationship with water, as a life-sustaining resource, as a means of production, and as a cultural idiom. The landscape of women and water in India is no exception. In rural India , women head-load water over miles in the scorching heat of the semi-arid plains or along narrow dangerous paths up in the foothills. Denied land rights, most rural women find it difficult to access water for irrigation or to participate in making decisions in the newly established water user associations. G iving women a voice in articulating their water priorities requires an enabling environment which recognises that the right to water is embedded in the larger canvas of gender rights, livelihood sustainability and human security.

The water sector is going through a crisis in terms of management of the resource as well as in terms of scarcity. In Maharashtra , the number of drought-prone talukas is increasing rapidly. Despite huge investments in building dams, the irrigated area has not gone beyond 15% of total cropped area. It is estimated that if all the potential were exploited, this area would not exceed 30%. However, how much irrigation is expanded is less crucial than how much of it reaches the poor, and women.

Almost 60% of the irrigated area in Maharashtra is cornered by 2% of the land, which is largely under sugarcane. The highly subsidised expansion of irrigation in the last few decades has created pockets of prosperity but left a large section of the poor deprived of water. The question of assured water for livelihoods for a large section of the population remains unresolved. Issues of distributional justice were, in fact, never on the irrigation agenda.

Apart from the tremendous gaps in equity, the irrigation sector is beset with problems like inadequate financial recoveries from users, stagnating performance, poorly maintained irrigation systems, displacement of people, resultant conflicts between those affected by the project and its beneficiaries, and the irreparable damage that it has caused to the ecosystem (Vaidyanathan; Ballabh).

In terms of drinking water, according to government of Maharashtra statistics, between 1978 and 1980, 12,753 villages had inadequate drinking water. To resolve this crisis the government introduced 15,085 tube wells and then claimed that almost 11,000 were successful. In 1986, the number of villages with inadequate drinking water increased to 14,000. In 1999, 5,163 villages and 3,193 vadis were being provided water through tankers. Between 1997 and 2002, the state government claimed that it had solved the problem for 30,741 villages. However, at the end of 2002, there were about 22,870 villages with a severe drinking water crisis -- which most severely affects the poor and women.

According to the central government, 94% of rural habitations in early 2004 had access to water, ostensibly showing that India was well on target to meet the Millennium Development Goals. However, such data is based on systems in place and does not account for the sustainability of the source or the system. Nor does it question who has access to how much water and when.

Women and drinking water

It is estimated that over 10 million person-years are spent by women and female children carrying water from distant sources every year.” (Johannesburg Summit 2002 cited in WaterAid/WSSCC)

Who collects water for households?

According to a study commissioned by UNICEF and done by the Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission, 1990, the principal collectors of water in Indian households are women, usually between the ages of 15-35 years. They collect about 192 litres of water a day for an average household of seven members. Women's role in water collection varies with age as follows:

  • Women 15-35 years: Collect 63.6% of household water
  • Women 36-50 years: 16.2%
  • Women 51+ years: 2.0%
  • Women < 15 years: 4.0%
  • Men: 14.0%

Source: Venkateswaran

The crisis of drinking water is a crisis in the lives of poor and marginalised women. The impact of drought and scarcity is felt most severely by women due to their gender-defined roles in collecting and utilising water for the survival of their households. A study in the Konkan region of Maharashtra found that in every household, on an average, women spend about 79%, men about 7%, and children about 14% of their time in meeting the household's domestic water needs (as cited in Joy and Paranjape).

This impacts women's health, time and energy spent in collecting water, income-earning opportunities, childrearing capacities, and social status. These impacts have the combined effect of weakening the capabilities of women and their livelihood outcomes.

While women normally spend a significant proportion of their time in meeting basic household needs for water, fodder and fuel even in normal times, during a drought they have to invest even more time and labour to collect less and less -- both quantitatively and qualitatively -- water, fodder and fuel. They have to hire out more of their labour for a smaller than usual wage. This leaves them with very little time to engage in any productive activity outside the house, and forces women to remain in subsistence.

Women from Kalmadi village in Nandurbar district, north Maharashtra , say: “Forget about safe drinking water from wells, we spend most of our time locating streams and springs that can quench our thirst. Almost half a day is spent in locating water.” Indutai Patil, now 60, says: “Since I came to this village as a young bride I have been facing this problem of water scarcity. My hair has gone white but the search for water has not ended. As I age the distance to the water source also increases.”

In Sindkheda taluka in Dhule district there are several dams like the Jamphal and Sulawade on the river Tapi, but they are all completely dry. This is a high rainfall area (1,200-1,500 mm) but most of the rivers flow only in the monsoons and go dry immediately afterwards. At any time of the day it is common to see women here walking with pots on their heads, in search of water. The government took over two wells to resolve the drinking water problem, but erratic electricity makes it difficult to pump out water.

For women agricultural labourers this scarcity has meant loss of income. They say: “We cannot afford to spend our entire day looking for water. We have to go for wage-earning. But then we have to buy water for drinking. We earn about Rs 30 a day and spend about Rs 15-20 just on getting some kind of water to quench our thirst. How do we live and what can we eat?” While this is the story in most parts of Maharashtra , in Wada in Thane district, Coca-Cola was given an unlimited permit to extract water.

Health impact studies have shown how lack of water means that women have to cut down on the number of meals cooked, or manage with raw or partially cooked food. Wood is the main source of fuel in rural areas. Fuel becomes inadequate during a drought, and this also changes consumption patterns. All this affects the nutritional quality of the food, and women and girls are the worst affected in the process. Studies have shown that in such situations it is the women who cut down their intake first (Agarwal, as cited in Kulkarni and Rao).

Apart from the nutritional deficiencies, women's health is affected due to waterborne diseases. Mortality and morbidity due to increased workloads have been observed across the region. Studies have also shown an increased incidence of anaemia during drought years. Instances of abortion and ailments related to the reproductive organs have also been observed. In Pune district, MASUM, an organisation working on women's health issues, observed that menstrual cycles were affected and many women reported that they had not menstruated for over a year due to physical exertion.

Water scarcity also means that young girls are forced to stay out of school to collect water. Women find little time for social interaction with each other, and, as water becomes scarcer, once-stabilising community relationships turn sour due to increasing conflicts over the resource. Permanent and seasonal migration of men to cities and irrigated areas leads to an apparent increase in “women-headed” households.

Long-term and widespread drought has had a long-standing impact on natural resources. Ecological degradation, contributing to drought, has led to the erosion of livelihoods. Degradation of forests and land and dropping water tables impact women in the same way as drought. Added to this is a lack of opportunities in the non-farm sector, which forces migration to urban areas. Schemes and programmes to address these issues lack an understanding of the causes that brought about the depletion of the resource, as well as gender-defined tasks and roles.

Women and irrigation

There is little documentation of the traditional rights of women over water sources. Formal rights are often vested in men as farmers and as heads of the household. Women therefore have little or no access to irrigation in their own capacity, and access is usually mediated through a male member of the household. Few women use water as individual farmers to irrigate crops on individually owned land. Most women draw canal water for homestead plots or for domestic use in informal arrangements -- that is, the water is used for purposes other than irrigation: for drinking, domestic use, for small vegetable gardens, for livestock and micro-enterprises such as fisheries.

Women's use of irrigation water is thus seen in uses other than irrigating the ‘main' crops. However, in conventional analyses of irrigation efficiency, this distraction from irrigating the main crops would be seen as wastage.

Only women using water as individual farmers receive some attention in the present irrigation paradigm. Most of the others fall in the informal arena, with no rights. A more explicit recognition and formalisation of ‘other' categories of users is needed. This will bring about a better assessment of water use and distribution, and improve the security of these users (Meinzen-Dick and Zwartween).

Few studies document how women would use water differently if given access. In our work, we have noticed that gender differences in irrigation are manifested in the choice of crops, preference over water timings, and labour inputs. These are internal to the household and never really emerge as open conflicts.

Some studies show how women participate in irrigation-related activities. A study in Gujarat shows that women spend an average of 5.3 hours in rearing livestock. Fetching water for livestock takes about 5 hours daily. The detailed study on women's multiple uses of water showed that there were only a few activities in agricultural production in which women were not actively involved. Women were involved in irrigation, chemical spraying, fertiliser application and land preparation, along with men. The Gujarat study also shows that although women are significantly involved in irrigated agriculture, the revenue generated from agriculture is entirely controlled by men and so are decisions around water. This is true also of production from women's fields and household gardens (Upadhyay).

Irrigation brings prosperity and hope but often at the cost of women and other resource-poor. There is a lot of documentation of the ill effects of irrigated agriculture on women. Apart from the increased workload and resultant health hazards, changed cropping patterns due to irrigated agriculture affects the extent and nature of women's meaningful participation in agriculture. Some studies in Sangli district in Maharashtra indicate an increase in the incidence of desertion and violence against women in the district's irrigated belt.

In most cases, the other side of improved productivity and irrigation efficiency is increased labour for women. This is evident in many irrigated areas. Although improved labour opportunities have a positive side, women's work increases without a substantial improvement in their status and without them being relieved of their domestic workloads (SOPPECOM; Vasavada; Zwartween).

However, in some instances, there are positive outcomes. Sara Ahmed's study on the lift co-operatives in eastern Gujarat point to the fact that enhanced participation of women in irrigation does lead to positive outcomes. She outlines the significant potential such participation holds in changing gender relations and responsibilities (Ahmed).

We argue for women's presence in irrigation management and independent access to water for two reasons. First, because women's contribution in terms of time and energy in subsistence agriculture has been proven to be very significant. Improving their access to water and decisions related to water is critical for better livelihood outcomes. Second, such changes have the potential to challenge the existing property regime as well as its gender specific tasks. It is assumed that because most women do not own land, they will not use water entitlements if given any. However, if access to water is given, women may either demand land, trade that water, or use it for micro enterprises.

People working in the water sector are grappling with a range of challenges related to gender equity. The arguments have ranged from gender participation on grounds of poverty, efficiency, welfare and equity (Razavi; Agarwal; Jackson). Many of these arguments are shaped by larger concerns in the water sector and link gender equity to more “legitimate” concerns such as better management of water, improved efficiency, cost recovery, etc.

The economics of water

Policies are being introduced that treat water as an economic good. Debates on water pricing and full cost recovery are growing. The irrigation sector has been recognised as a loss-making sector and the State wants to rid itself of the responsibility of managing it. One of the solutions for recovering costs is seen in the “user pays” principle. In plain terms, this implies that only those who are willing to pay and have the ability to pay will have access to water. No distinction is made in pricing policies between water for livelihoods and for other requirements.

This has two implications: first, the priority given to industrial water use over irrigation. If water is allocated wherever returns are the highest, water for industry becomes the more favoured option. The second implication relates to which crops are given preference with irrigation water. This can restrict women's access to water for non-marketable produce or survival tasks (Green and Baden ). “Paying” crops can get preference over “non-paying” food crops largely cultivated by women. Women often informally use irrigation water for rearing cattle, moulding bricks, growing vegetables. All small-scale activities, but crucial for household consumption. The economic benefits of these enterprises are not visibly high and the new policies may force women out of using irrigation water for these purposes (Cleaver and Elson).

The economic criterion raises critical issues of what is really economically affordable for women. Most studies and experiences indicate that women rarely have control over their own or the household's income. Guarantees of assured supply in many drinking water schemes have prompted women to agree to the “user pays” principle. However, the willingness to pay cannot be equated with the ability to pay. And how does one calculate what the necessary quantum of water for meeting livelihoods is, and how it can become affordable?

“Cost recovery” is the other principle being seen as critical for bringing in water sector reform -- in the drinking water, sanitation as well as irrigation sectors. A recent scheme promises to involve beneficiaries from the stage of development of the resource. The new terminology is Participatory Irrigation Development and Management (PIDM). The scheme is designed in such a way that the beneficiaries themselves will bear a large part (60%) of the distribution cost. This would be done through a combination of contributions in the form of labour, cash and bank loans.

Studies from across the world show that it is largely the women of the household who make the labour input for capital cost recovery and for recovery of operation and maintenance of irrigation schemes. Therefore, this form of cost recovery often means increased labour for women. Thus, the implied cost savings from decentralised management may represent hidden costs for women (Green and Baden ).

Any alternative will have to be based on restructuring the water sector on the principles of equity, sustainability and participation. Unless rational, equitable and sustainable use of water does not become a primary concern for policymakers, women and other resource-poor will never be able to participate in water governance.


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(Seema Kulkarni works with the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM) in Pune on issues of gender and rural livelihoods. She is also associated with the women's movement in Maharashtra . This article draws on an article she wrote for 'Women, water and livelihoods: a review of policy and towards evolving a gender-just vision for water', a booklet published this year by Women and Water Network and SOPPECOM)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007