With the nation reeling under a severe heat wave, the media has been bringing us heart-breaking images of parched land and little children sapped of their strength. But the most eye-searing images are those of the women in rural areas walking long distances with heavy pots of water balanced on their heads, silently, under the unforgiving sun. It is like a story out of Greek mythology: like Tantalus, who was cursed to be eternally hungry and thirsty, with food and water moving out of his reach. These women too seem to be cursed under the weight of the very water that most parts of India craves today.
Three-hundred-and-thirty million Indians have been hit by drought this year. The Bundelkhand region in the States of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the Marathwada region in Maharashtra and most parts of Telangana are grappling with severe water shortage. Thousands of villages in Karnataka and Odisha are also facing severe drinking water crisis. Indiscriminate digging of borewells leading to depletion of the water table coupled with poor monsoons have led to this crisis situation.
Women and girls in rural areas often walk several kilometres everyday to fetch water for their families. In the current heat wave conditions, walking long distances with the heavy containers of water is torturous, to say the least. A 12-year-old girl recently died of heat stroke in Maharashtra’s drought-hit Beed district after several trips to a hand pump to fetch water. There have also been cases of deaths of women who fell into half dried-up wells trying to draw out small amounts of water.
Research shows that walking with the heavy load takes a permanent toll on the women’s health, leading to chronic fatigue, spinal and pelvic deformities, and effects on reproductive health, such as higher probability of miscarriages and postnatal bleeding and complications. Though water is a universal issue affecting both genders, social norms and apathy leads to this burden being imposed solely on women and men unfairly refusing to help in any way. In countries in Africa and South America, the situation is the same. Globally, women and children collectively spend 125 million hours each day fetching water.
There are several measures that can help deal with issues related to the water crisis.
Preventive actions include conservation of water, rainwater harvesting and stopping haphazard digging of borewells. In Sitamarhi in Bihar, the district administration has built more than 2,000 soak pits in government schools, health centres and police stations among others, for water conservation and recharging ground water. The step was part of the Lohia Swacha Abhiyan of the Nitish Kumar-led Bihar government, which was carried out by the district administration in partnership with UNICEF.
Another measure that can aid the women in drought-stricken areas is the waterwheel. A water con
tainer with a simple wheel contraption, the waterwheel can be rolled on the ground and has a capacity of up to 50 litres. A one-time investment, this device could aid a woman for decades. Introduced in parts of Rajasthan, the waterwheel has transformed the lives of the women using it. Of course, low-priced though it is, impoverished women will not be able to afford the same. This is where NGOs, governmental and international organisations could come together and take steps to help the women.
Deploying the advanced technology available today can make a big difference. Young girls from the Dharavi slums built the Paani app to streamline water collection for each household by setting up an online queue that alerts people when it’s their turn to fill water. This simple act of notifying the time of water supply saves women precious time and energy and reduces the stress and uncertainty of chaotic water collection that often leads to arguments.
Desalination of sea water is another solution. As is obvious from countries like UAE, water scarcity is not really the issue, it is the lack of resources. With funds and effort, large scale desalination plants like the Jebel Ali plant in Dubai which produces 2.13 billion litres of water a day from the sea, can be set up.
Water should invigorate lives
Simple but large-scale and consistent efforts could lead to easier access to clean water and reduce the chances of disease and death. What’s more, the several hours of a woman’s time that is saved, when she does not have to struggle to fetch water, can be used in productive work for her personally and for her family. It will also lead to lower school dropout rates of girl children. It has been estimated that for each extra year of a mother’s schooling, infant mortality can be cut by 5-10 percent.
In short, easy access to water round the year will be an important step to healthier women and girls, leading to overall progress of communities and improved per capita quality of life.