Water, gender and climate change
Water sustains human life and underpins many human activities. Deteriorating water quality and increasing frequency and intensity of floods pose major challenges for societies. Changing seasonal and regional rainfall patterns will influence the availability of water resources.
The impacts of climate change on water resources and the water cycle, as well as the availability of water in sufficient quantity and quality, will have wide-ranging effects on societies, public health, economic activities and the environment.
Gendered roles and responsibilities play a central role in water provision and management. In developing countries, women are primarily responsible for water for household use, while men are seen as responsible for water use in business-related activities like agriculture or livestock farming. Nevertheless, in large parts of the world, women use water for subsistence agriculture and small livestock rearing, as well as for productive work and home industries.
Water scarcity, heavy rainfall and more frequent flooding lead to additional burdens for women. Women have to spend additional time collecting water, cleaning and maintaining their houses after floods and caring for their families. In order to provide water for their households and subsistence agriculture, women often have to walk long distances, carrying heavy weights. For example, in East Africa, women sometimes expend up to 27% of their caloric intake on collecting water.
According to the World Health Organization, 80 per cent of all illnesses in the world are attributable to unsafe water and sanitation. Water-borne diseases kill millions of people every year, and many more become ill with diarrhoea, malaria, hepatitis and other diseases because of the absence of clean sanitation facilities. In some regions, the lack of female-only toilets impedes girls from attending school. Women’s reproductive functions make their immune systems more sensitive to water contamination, which means that their health may be impaired more severely than that of men.
In many cases, access to water is linked to land rights, and in many parts of the world, women’s right to own or inherit land is prohibited or restricted. If women do have access to land, their plot often has poor quality soil or does not provide sufficient access to irrigation.
Water is a public good and a basic requirement for life on Earth. As a result of climate change, clean water will become more scarce. Privatisation may add further pressure to water distribution and have unjust consequences. Low-income households, particularly those headed by women, struggle to pay large lump sums for water connections and additional monthly payments. As a result, women have been central in the struggle against the sale of public water services to transnational companies.
Water scarcity is increasingly becoming a trigger for conflicts. The growing number of conflicts and wars leads to increasing numbers of displaced people and refugees, the majority of which are women and children. The loss of land and water resources causes even more insecurity among refugees, and puts an extra burden on women. Securing access to land and safe water are major challenges for the resettlement of women refugees and their families. Moreover, most violent conflicts aggravate the existing unequal opportunities for access to water.
Although women manage most household water issues and have important knowledge and experience in saving water, they are seldom consulted and their needs are inadequately considered. As studies of water supply governance have shown, the whole gender dimension is excluded in debates on participation schemes and policies. Because of the significant gender differences in use, access and management of water, women’s participation is essential for successful water management and adaptation planning.
Water availability is heavily impacted by climate change. It is evident that women will be much more affected than men by impacts like increasing water scarcity, increasing desertification, more and heavier floods and water-borne diseases.
Women’s access to water is particularly compromised in situations of scarcity. When there is competition for water, poor people often lose out to those who can afford more powerful machinery for extracting water or those who have more political and economic influence. Such consequences have often been reported from developing countries, although they are still not taken into account in practice.
To support the integration of gender knowledge into policy and planning, it is necessary to train planners and raise their awareness of gender issues. Toolkits available from women’s or gender networks should be used as a starting point, and gender networking between experts from the North and the South should be strengthened.
Many countries are developing national adaptation plans and/or adaptation measures and projects., and identifying priority activities to respond to urgent and immediate needs. Coping with water scarcity, heavy rainfalls and floods are important issues to take into account in adaptation planning, and the equal participation of women and men is indispensable for successful planning. Additionally, gender experts should be consulted during the planning process. Gender aspects must be integrated into the whole procedure (research – consultation – planning – implementation – monitoring), supported by appropriate tools.