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8 Mar 2017 | Blog

Water Scarcity and Women’s Lives: an Observation from the Field

Menaka Hamal

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A 70 year old widow rearing goats for her livelihood.

Recently, while on a research trip studying adaptive water governance under the Himalayan Adaption, Water and Resilience (HI-AWARE) initiative, I visited Vyas Municipality, Gandaki River Basin, Nepal, to collect primary data from 210 randomly selected households from 14 wards in the municipality. In order to complete the two-week long survey as efficiently as possible using a digital device with geo-location, I divided the wards into two categories – urban and rural – based on their populations and geographies. My two colleagues and I decided that the best way to conquer the survey would be to start from the urban areas, and move towards the more rural locations.

On a cold and foggy morning, questionnaires in hand, we parted ways for our urban interviews. It was early morning, biting cold, but shops in the area were open, and it was business as usual at the bazaar– a movement of people, buying and selling goods. I tried recruiting a man for the interview, but he showed no interest in what I was saying. Then, I approached a group of women who were sitting and chatting in the sun, in front of their retail (soaps, cosmetics, garments and jewelry) shops. Some of the women in the group had recently moved to the area from rural wards or other neighbouring districts. I asked them how they were doing, and how they managed their businesses. They said their mornings were very busy. The women told me they collect water, prepare meals, send their children to school, do the dishes, and clean the house. They obey their husbands, and elders, serve them food, and help them with whatever they need at any given time. They come to their shops after finishing their chores at home. It’s their daily routine. They return home in the evening, and repeat some of the same chores.

These responses are familiar to me. Having grown up in one of the most rural and economically disadvantaged districts of Nepal, Mugu, I have first-hand experience of how women in the family and village, including myself, do almost all of the domestic work. I was impressed by their ability to manage very diverse responsibilities, which are almost never recognized as real work in our society. The hard work of a woman is regarded as a ‘duty’ instead of being appreciated as real, laborious work. I admired the strength evident in the participants’ ability to play such diverse roles, and run their households with confidence.

Women struggling to access water from the well due to low level water

After finishing the interviews with them, I went to the more rural wards. At first, I thought that women respondents from these wards would be shy, and that it might be challenging to conduct interviews with them. But the women I encountered were confident and determined. They were friendly, and shared stories about how they make their living. One of the respondents, a middle-aged women from ward no. 4, Vyas Municipality, who could not read or write, talked about how she has found a way to earn money to support her family. She owns two milking buffalos – a major source of her income. She spends a significant amount of time feeding livestock. She also takes full responsibility for taking care of the children, doing the dishes, cleaning, and cooking for four family members. In addition, she has to walk far from her house to fetch water.

The availability of water is a big problem in the area. Upon having conversations with and witnessing to some extent the amount of extra time these women spend collecting water because it is such a scarce resource, or getting to streams for bathing and washing clothes when they are menstruating because they are considered impure, I was fazed by their resilience, but also left quite distribed. When on their period, women are not allowed to use alternate water sources – open water wells and springs – which are closer to the village, and are forced to travel to the closet river, regardless of whether it may be clean or dirty. Unhygeinic water often affects their health, and young girls have to miss school to clean themselves when they are menstruating.

Easy access to water could ease the lives of these girls and women. I was agonized when a interviewee told me that she suffers the effects of water scarcity even when she has two wells near her house in Beluti Gaira, ward no. 8, Vyas. One of the wells is drying up, she said, while the water level in the other one is very low. As a result, women from the village have to wait in long lines beginning from early morning, to draw water from the well. The process of getting water is challenge, and actually getting the water is an achievement. If the women can’t get water from a particular well, they have to go to another village to get tap water for drinking and cooking. And then they walk again, to a nearby stream, to get water for bathing and washing. Situations like these make women’s lives harder, and they have to invest a lot of time and energy just collecting water as if this might be their sole responsibility.

During my last day of the  survey, I had a brief chat with a 70-year-old woman, a widow who lives alone, in ward no. 6, Vyas. Her morning starts with a 20-minute walk to the nearest source to fetch water, she told me. It is an open well from which she draws water for her four goats and for herself. It is admirable how well this woman handles her situation, and takes care of herself and her goats. But, it is devastating to know that even women of her age don’t have easy access to water in the area.


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