Water and gender equality

January 14, 2021

Water isn't just crucial for life, it's fundamental to increasing opportunities for women and girls in rural areas across the globe. A new Stanford study reveals how bringing piped water closer to remote households in Zambia dramatically improves the lives of women and girls, while also improving economic opportunities, food security and well-being for entire households. The research, recently published in Social Science & Medicine, could spur governments and NGOs to more carefully evaluate the costs and benefits of piped water as an alternative to less accessible communal water sources.

"Switching from the village borehole to piped supply saved almost 200 hours of fetching time per year for a typical household," said study senior author Jenna Davis, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford and director of Stanford's Program on Water, Health and Development. "This is a substantial benefit, most of which accrued to women and girls."

Globally, about 844 million people live without safe, accessible water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, hygiene and food production - the linchpin of healthy, prosperous communities. Just 12 percent of the rural population in sub-Saharan Africa has water piped to their home. Instead, families collect water from distant, shared sources, with women and girls overwhelmingly responsible for performing the time-consuming and arduous chore of carrying containers that average about 40 pounds each. Dedicating a large chunk of their day to water fetching takes time away from activities such as childcare, housework, hygiene, outside employment, education and leisure.

"Addressing this problem provides the time and water for women and girls to invest in their household's health and economic development, in whatever way they see fit," said lead author James Winter, who recently defended his PhD in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford.

Over the past several decades, national governments and international aid groups have spent hundreds of millions of dollars installing basic water sources, such as wells and handpumps. However, many of these sources are still far from users' homes, resulting in long journeys to fetch water. Previous studies have shown water fetching can harm both mental and physical well-being, while piped water at home can increase water for hygiene and livelihoods, improve food production and decrease infectious disease prevalence.

Yet despite this finding, piped water installations in sub-Saharan Africa have increased by a mere 2 percentage points since 2007. Investing resources into high-quality piped water sources that are dramatically closer to rural households could thus be a more effective route to providing safe, accessible and affordable drinking water for all.

For their study, the researchers examined less frequently measured aspects of well-being - including time savings, economic opportunity and nutritional security - that can be gained through increased access to reliable, easily accessible water. To do this, the team followed four rural villages within Zambia's southern province that had similar populations and access to school, markets and health care facilities. Halfway through the study, two of the villages received piped water to their yard, reducing the distance of their water source to just 15 meters.

Each village was surveyed at the beginning, middle and end of the study, with a team of Zambian interviewers conducting a total of 434 household surveys. They collected information on the time spent fetching water, the amount of water used for domestic tasks (cooking and cleaning) and productive uses (watering gardens, brick making or animal husbandry), and the frequency of these activities. A subset of female respondents wore GPS tracking devices to measure walking speeds and distance to water sources. Water meters were used to validate water consumption information.

The researchers found households with piped water spent 80 percent less time fetching water, representing a savings of close to four hours per week. The vast majority of these time savings accrued to women and girls, confirming that females disproportionately benefit from piped water interventions. These time savings were spent gardening, performing other household chores, caring for children or working outside of the home selling products such as fried buns or charcoal. These families also reported being happier, healthier and less worried.

Water consumption, especially for productive purposes, also increased. Households with piped water were over four times more likely to grow a garden, and garden sizes more than doubled over the course of the study. Furthermore, a larger variety of crops were harvested and households reported both selling and consuming this produce, with plans to expand their crop sales in the coming years.

While the accumulated benefits are impressive, they may actually understate the potential time savings of piped water interventions. At the start of the study, households in all four villages lived just a five-minute walk from their primary water source. On average, rural Zambian households spend about double that time walking to their water source, along with additional time waiting in line and filling water containers. The researchers point out that introducing piped water near homes elsewhere in Zambia could save the average rural household 32 hours per month, which is almost twice the amount of time recouped by households in this instance.

Of course, a piped water infrastructure does have higher upfront costs, which could discourage government and NGO investments. Poverty poses a major barrier when it comes to water access, and with most of the world's poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, more research is needed to understand what is needed for communities to sustain piped water networks.

"The benefits we see here make it crucial for future work to understand how these systems can be operated and maintained in a financially sustainable way, even in geographically isolated, rural communities," said Winter.

Stanford University

Related Food Security Articles from Brightsurf:

Men less likely to see food as national security issue amid pandemic
On average, men not only showed less empathy toward temporary agricultural laborers but also were less likely to see food supply and production as national security issues, according to a study led by a Washington State University researcher.

New research highlights impact of COVID-19 on food security in Kenya and Uganda
CABI scientists have conducted new research highlighting the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on food security in Kenya and Uganda with more than two-thirds of those surveyed having experienced economic hardship due to the pandemic.

Infants in households with very low food security may have greater obesity risk
Infants from households reporting very low 'food security,' a measure of access to adequate and healthy meals, tend to weigh more than those from households with relatively high food security.

Declining US plant breeding programs impacts food security
Decreasing access to funding, technology, and knowledge in U.S. plant breeding programs could negatively impact our future food security.

Decline in plant breeding programs could impact food security
A team of scientists led by Kate Evans, a Washington State University horticulture professor who leads WSU's pome fruit (apples and pears) breeding program, found that public plant breeding programs are seeing decreases in funding and personnel.

Economic and food supply chain disruptions endanger global food security
COVID-19 has led to a global economic slowdown that is affecting all four pillars of food security - availability, access, utilization, and stability.

Health, well-being and food security of families deteriorating under COVID-19 stress
The ongoing disruptive changes from efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 are having a substantial negative impact on the physical and mental well-being of parents and their children across the country, according to a new national survey published today in Pediatrics.

How to tackle climate change, food security and land degradation
How can some of world's biggest problems -- climate change, food security and land degradation -- be tackled simultaneously?

COVID-19 will affect the food and financial security of many for years to come
The complex food shopping patterns that financially insecure families employ have been upended by COVID-19.

Threats to global food security from emerging fungal crop pathogens
Amongst the world's most challenging problems is the need to feed an ever-growing global population sustainably.

Read More: Food Security News and Food Security Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.