Collecting water: a waste of time for women and girls

Collecting water in eastern DRCPRESS RELEASE – World Water Week – Collecting water is often a colossal waste of time for women and girls, notably in the DRC.

Collecting water in the world

UNICEF said the 200 million hours women and girls spend every day collecting water is a colossal waste of their valuable time. As World Water Week gets underway in Stockholm and experts gather to try to improve the world’s access to water, the UN children’s agency stressed that the opportunity cost of lack of access to water disproportionately falls on women.

“Just imagine: 200 million hours is 8.3 million days, or over 22,800 years,” said UNICEF’s global head of water, sanitation and hygiene Sanjay Wijesekera. “It would be as if a woman started with her empty bucket in the Stone Age and didn’t arrive home with water until 2016. Think how much the world has advanced in that time. Think how much women could have achieved in that time.”

“When water is not on premises and needs to be collected, it’s our women and girls who are mostly paying with their time and lost opportunities,” he added.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal for water and sanitation, Goal 6, calls for universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water by 2030. The first step is providing everyone with a basic service within a 30-minute round trip, and the long term goal is to ensure everyone has safe water available at home. However, UN estimates are that in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, for 29 per cent of the population (37 per cent in rural areas and 14 per cent in urban areas), improved drinking water sources are 30 minutes or more away.

In sub-Saharan Africa, one roundtrip to collect water is 33 minutes on average in rural areas and 25 minutes in urban areas.

When water is not piped to the home the burden of fetching it falls disproportionately on women and children, especially girls. A study of 24 sub-Saharan countries revealed that when the collection time is more than 30 minutes, an estimated 3.36 million children and 13.54 million adult females were responsible for water collection.

For women, the opportunity costs of collecting water are high, with far reaching effects. It considerably shortens the time they have available to spend with their families, on child care, other household tasks, or even in leisure activities. For both boys and girls, water collection can take time away from their education and sometimes even prevent their attending school altogether.

Collecting water can affect the health of the whole family, and particularly of children. When water is not available at home, even if it is collected from a safe source, the fact that it has to be transported and stored increases the risk that it is faecally contaminated by the time it is drunk.

This in turn increases the risk of diarrhoeal disease, which is the fourth leading cause of death among children under 5, and a leading cause of chronic malnutrition, or stunting, which affects 159 million children worldwide. More than 300,000 children under 5 die annually from diarrhoeal diseases due to poor sanitation, poor hygiene, or unsafe drinking water – over 800 per day.

“No matter where you look, access to clean drinking water makes a difference in the lives of people,” said Wijesekera. “The needs are clear; the goals are clear. Women and children should not have to spend so much of their time for this basic human right.”

Collecting water in the DRC

The Democratic Republic of the Congo possesses significant water resources, both underground and on the surface. Despite this huge potential, a large number of people, especially in rural areas, do not have access to drinking water, and instead drink dirty surface water. According to the demographic and health survey (DHS 2014), only 48.7% of the total population has access to drinking water, and in rural areas this is only 32%.

The majority of people obtain their water from sources situated in swamps with steep slopes, which make extremely hard work for women or girls. Often these sources are far away and require these women to travel long distances. Again, according to the DHS 2014, more than 50% of the DRC’s population obtain their water from a source which is more than 30 minutes away (round trip).

In order to ensure access to drinking water for communities, since 2006 the government of the DRC and the United Nation’s Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) have been employing the “Healthy Village and Healthy School” project.

Since 2009, this programme has been introducing low-cost manual drilling technology which can provide drinking water less than 500m away from the users. This innovative manual drilling technique has the advantage of allowing a water point to be built in a single day, making record time. In all the neighbourhoods/villages equipped with drilling sites, a maintenance system has been put in place. The water source is managed by a water point management committee, two villagers who can carry out reparations and a tradesman (responsible for several water points in the area) for more serious breakdowns.

Recent experience mean considerable effort still needs to go into improving the quality of drilling sites. This should be done through creating regulations and standards, as well as providing a management system made up of the community itself, with the support of companies who can provide replacement parts.


Photo: UNICEF DRC Morton

Text on the situation in the DRC translated from French by Amber Sherman

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Yves Willemot

Yves Willemot est le chef de l’Équipe InfoCom de l’UNICEF RDC. Plus que tout, ce qui est important pour lui c'est d'être "tous ensemble pour les enfants".

Yves Willemot is Head of the UNICEF DRC InfoCom Team. More than anything, he believes that the most important is to "be together for the children".

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