In too much of Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Asia, fetching water is the major life's work of girls and women. Easy access to clean water would transform the lives of the girls and women in these regions. Girls often drop out of school because they are needed at home to help haul water. Reporting in 2002, on a campaign launched at that time at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, aimed at cutting in half by 2015 the number of people worldwide without reliable access to clean water, Nicole Itano, reported
For Betty Sgawuka, water is life, but it's also backbreaking work. As a young child, she rambled after her mother with a small bucket; half a century later, now a grandmother several times over, she still makes multiple trips a day to a nearby stream.Updating this information with an October, 2010 press release announcing that the United Nations Human Rights Council had declared safe, clean drinking water to be a basic human right, it appears that the facts have changed very little. "Almost 900 million people worldwide do not have access to clean water and more than 2.6 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation. Studies also indicate about 1.5 million children under the age of five die each year and 443 million school days are lost because of water- and sanitation-related diseases." In fact, some places, merely fetching the water from the stream can be hazardous for the women and girls. A 2008 press release from South Africa AUMONITOR quotes UNICEF to the effect that fetching water can often be dangerous for African women and girls:
Much has come to Sgawuka's village during her 54 years: apartheid, freedom, AIDS. But eight years after South Africa's first free, multi-racial elections, the only water that flows through Luphisi is the stream that nature put there.
Earlier this week, more than 100 world leaders met in Johannesburg for the World Summit on Sustainable Development. At the top on the agenda during the 10-day meeting were clean water and sanitation and how they could be brought to places like Luphisi. At the end of the summit Wednesday, leaders reiterated their commitment to halve the number of people without water by 2015, and set a new goal to try to halve the number of people without access to sanitation by the same year. Hundreds of millions of dollars from the developing world were also pledged to the effort.
More than 1 billion people around the world lack access to clean water and another 2 billion to sanitation. Waterborne diseases are estimated to kill more than a million adults annually and enough children to fill a jumbo jet each day.
But for millions of women like Sgawuka, clean water and access to sanitation also mean increased freedom and dignity.
"It's women and girls who bear the brunt of the lack of clean water; it's women and girls who are intimidated and humiliated by the lack of sanitation," said Sir Richard Jolly, head of a new United Nations campaign called WASH--Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for All, speaking in Johannesburg. "Remember, the amount of water the African or Asian carries on her head is roughly equivalent to the amount of luggage most of us will bring home from Johannesburg, roughly 20 kg."
In most of the world, it is a woman's job to collect water for cooking, cleaning, drinking and sanitation. Girls often begin collecting water from a very young age and because the burden of collecting water is often so onerous, many are forced to drop out of school.
"The provision of clean water is particularly important because it has a liberating effect on women and young girls," said Kul Gautam, deputy executive director of UNICEF. "In many rural areas, the average woman spends one-quarter to one-third of her time fetching water."
Gautam also said UNICEF studies have shown that lack of water and sanitation are major factors leading to the high dropout rates of girls. In addition to the girls who drop out because their labor is needed at home, many girls also leave school because of inadequate sanitation at schools themselves.
Sanitation, say aid workers and government officials, is often the neglected sister of clean water. Here in South Africa, where 7 million people have been provided with clean water since 1994, the need for better sanitation was ignored.
"Ten years ago when we surveyed people about their priorities, water came up No. 2 behind jobs," said Mike Muller, director general of the South African Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. "Sanitation wasn't even on the list."
But two years ago, a deadly cholera epidemic broke out in the largely rural, northeastern province of KwaZulu-Natal. Since then, the South African government has redoubled its efforts on sanitation.
"Many of us in the aid industry thought that clean water was about better health and eliminating waterborne diseases," Jolly said. "But increasingly we're realizing that for women, often it's a safety issue."
About 200 miles away from Luphisi, in the rough shantytown of Kapok outside of Johannesburg, more than a dozen families share a single chemical latrine. Serviced by the city's water authority, the latrines are clean and sanitary.
At night, however, even a short walk from shack to toilet can be a dangerous proposition. South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape in the world, and many of them take place in communities like this one.
Johannesburg Water, the city's state-owned but privately run water authority, is installing private latrines for each household.
Chantal Mofokeng says it's a small thing that makes a big difference.
"I used to wait rather than go to the toilet in the night," she said. "It wasn't safe."
However, over half of Africa’s women and girls have no access to clean water and sanitation. According to UNICEF, “in rural Africa, 19 per cent of women spend more than one hour on each trip to fetch water, an exhausting and often dangerous chore that robs them of the chance to work and learn”.And yet, recent reports on the mis-use of large aid agencies' funds make one think twice about how one gives aid. Think carefully about how to send help. Do not just send money to large aid agencies, where sadly, large quantities are bled off by corrupt government officials who then leave the vast majority of the victims' lives unchanged. Look for agencies that use the money with very little overhead, to build directly and work with local charities who are long-time in place. Use Charity Navigator or a similar checker to see if the agency or charity you are thinking of is a good one. For instance, I ran across WaterAid America as I was researching this blog post. The more I read about it, the better it sounded. So I ran it through Charity Navigator and I was pleased to see it got a very good rating. Be careful how you spend your charitable dollars!
The UN Human Development Report (HDR) for 2006, “Beyond Scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis” noted that poor governance was at the root of water scarcity and lack of access to sanitation, asserting that the “global crisis in water (…) reinforces the obscene inequalities of life that divide rich and poor”.