7. Women and SDG 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

This chapter provides a description of the links between gender equality and water management and proposes some key actions to improve access to water and adequate sanitation facilities. Its main findings include the following:

  • Currently more than 2 billion people live with restricted access to water resources. By 2050, at least one in four people (2.8 billion) are likely to live in a country affected by severe water shortages.

  • In much of the developing world, women are mainly responsible for collecting water, a task with a high opportunity cost and risk of potential health problems. Inadequate sanitation decreases the likelihood that girls attend school, particularly during menstruation.

  • In many developing countries, the burden placed on women and girls by exposure to unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services is multifaceted. Travel to water resources and culturally defined expectations in relation to water management can leave women vulnerable to gender-based violence.

  • Better gender-disaggregated data is needed on women’s access to clean water and sanitation, as well as on the extent of women’s involvement and impact in water, sanitation and hygiene decision making.

  • More gender-sensitive assessment of water management projects, in particular shared river flows, lakes and other sources of fresh drinking water and irrigation, is needed. Women can be vulnerable to the effects of dam projects, including across borders.

  • Development co-operation actions, including aid disbursement, should integrate a gender dimension into water management projects, in particular through gender impact assessments.

  • Women’s knowledge of local natural resources and household water management skills can be leveraged to shape conservation efforts. Governance arrangements for water management projects should be reviewed to promote gender equality in decision making and ensure consultation of groups representing women’s voices.

Water scarcity is a growing problem that will be exacerbated by population growth, increased urbanisation, pollution and climate change. It is estimated that currently more than two billion people live with restricted access to water resources, and that by 2050, at least one in four people (2.8 billion) are likely to live in a country affected by severe water shortages (UN-Water and FAO, 2007[1]) (UNDP, 2006[2]). Rising populations’ demand for water goes hand in hand with increased demand for food. With 70% of the world’s freshwater used for agriculture, feeding a planet of 9 billion people by 2050 is estimated to require a 15% increase in water withdrawals. By 2050, it is estimated that world demand for water will exceed supply by 40% (World Bank, 2016[3]).

At the same time, and despite progress made over the past 20 years, 30% of the global population lacks access to safe water, and over 50% to safe sanitation and hygiene facilities (UNICEF and WHO, 2019[4]). These issues are more prominent in developing countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia (WHO and UNICEF, 2017[5]).

Limited access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene (SDG 6) is usually linked to poverty (SDG 1) and hunger (SDG 2). Such access is essential for well-being, affecting health and education outcomes (SDG 3 and SDG 4), and is a key determinant for sustainable food production, industrial development and urbanisation (SDGs 2, 9 and 11). SDG 6 is also linked to SDG 15, in particular Target 15.1 on conservation and sustainable use of freshwater, as well as to climate-related hazards and natural disasters (SDG 13).

Humanity faces a dismal future if it is unable to tackle climate change and properly manage water resources. An estimated 1.6 billion people will be at risk from floods by 2050, especially in coastal cities. Meanwhile, increasing droughts will generate tensions across users in particular urban dwellers, as in the recent cases of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Cape Town (C40 Cities, 2020[6]).

Water resources and water scarcity are also strongly linked to energy production and consumption, and hence SDG 7. The expected increase in energy demand over the coming years – with electricity consumption expected to rise by 80% by 2040 – could further disrupt water-stressed areas around the globe. This could be especially problematic in the case of low-carbon technologies, which, if not properly managed, could increase water stress or be limited by it. For instance, while wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) require very little water, other technologies, such as biofuels, concentrating solar power (CSP), carbon capture and nuclear power are relatively water-intensive. At the same time, provision of freshwater from surface water, groundwater or desalination, its transportation and distribution, and the collection and treatment of water and wastewater all depend on energy. Nevertheless, achieving access to clean water and sanitation worldwide would only add about 1% to global energy demand in 2030 (IEA, 2018[7]).

There are well-established linkages between women, sanitation, hygiene and health, especially in low-income countries (Bouzid, Cumming and Hunter, 2018[8]). Women more often face the negative health effects of poor water quality and untreated wastewater because of household roles such as cooking, cleaning, and childcare. Additionally, women are particularly affected by lack of access to clean water and sanitation due to hygienic needs and increased vulnerability to infection around menstruation and reproduction (Graham, Hirai and Kim, 2016[9]) (Unilever Domestos, 2013[10]).

Women are also highly dependent on efficient water management, though they are rarely included in decision making in the relevant sectors. Women could be important actors in driving more sustainable use of water resources, both in developed and developing countries, due to their roles in agriculture and domestic labour. Yet, currently only SDG Target 6.1, on universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all, and Target 6.2, on equitable sanitation and hygiene, are linked to women and girls. It should be noted, however, that SDG Target 3.9 calls for reducing the number of deaths and illnesses from water pollution and contamination, specifically referencing exposure to unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services.

Social norms in many countries are more likely to impose a water management role for women. The UN estimates that women and girls are responsible for water collection in 80% of households without access to water on premises (UNEP, 2016[11]). In a study of 48 countries, adult women and girls were found to be responsible for water collection more than twice as often as their male counterparts in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia (UN, 2010[12]). Inequality in terms of water management was particularly high in rural sub-Saharan Africa, where adult women fetch water in 63% of households compared to 11% of adult men (Figure 7.1) (UN, 2010[12]). Women with responsibilities as household and family caretakers are often severely affected by inadequate access to water and sanitation.

According to the UN, in a single day in 25 sub-Saharan African countries, women spend 16 million hours collecting water – often to the detriment of education or paid work – compared to only 6 million hours spent by men and 4 million hours spent by children. There are also differences in water usage, with women prioritising domestic and health and hygiene needs, while men prioritise water use for farming and raising livestock (UNEP, 2016[11]).

The lack of safe water makes women and girls vulnerable to gender-based-violence (GBV) in much of the developing world. Poor water connections force women to walk long distances in sometimes unsafe circumstances. Women have reported systematic violent attacks and sexual abuse while completing these domestic tasks. Women and girls also face the threat of GBV when walking to shared sanitation facilities. Fear of sexual violence can restrict freedom of movement and affect equal opportunities (Kayser et al., 2019[14]). Moreover, failure of women to fulfil their socially defined expectations in relation to fetching water greatly increases the risk of experiencing violence at home if men feel they have not delivered in their duties (Pommells et al., 2018[15]).

Women’s health is also at risk where water work is concerned. In societies where women are responsible for collecting water, carrying heavy buckets of 30 to 40 kg on average has detrimental effects on the spine and can lead to deformation and disease. Water collection expends 30% of daily calorie intake, thus putting women and girls with poor nutritional intake at risk (Abid et al., 2018[16]).

Women suffer disproportionately from desiccation and its consequences, as they are often left to take care of the household while men migrate for work or look for job opportunities elsewhere (International Organization for Migration, 2020[17]). For instance, water scarcity resulting from the Aral Sea Crisis led to an increase in maternal morbidity and mortality, infertility, and pregnancy and foetal development complications (Ataniyazova, 2003[18]). Chronic exposure to high concentrations of minerals and toxic pollutants through unsafe drinking water was found to cause dangerous concentrations of heavy metals and pesticides in the blood of pregnant women, umbilical cords and breast milk in affected areas (Wæhler and Sveberg Dietrichs, 2017[19]).

Agriculture is increasingly feminised, with women accounting for 43 % of all farmworkers in Asia (more than 50% in Southeast and East Asia) and 47% in Africa (Agarwal, 2018[20]); (FAO, IFAD and ILO, 2010[21]). Women are also primarily responsible for subsistence farming (Sections 6.3.2, 11.3.2, and 14.5.1). Since agriculture accounts for most freshwater use, growing water restrictions will put increasing pressure on many women who depend on subsistence farming for their food and income. In many countries, women are also affected by insecure water rights (UN WomenWatch, 2009[22]). As a result, mismanagement of water resources, including depletion due to climate change, disproportionately affects women who already devote high amounts of time providing for their families.

Access to sanitation facilities is of greater importance for women due to both health concerns and cultural norms. Environmental sanitation plays a major role in the transmission of endemic diseases, such as malaria, that disproportionally affect women, and particularly pregnant women (Shapiro-Mendoza et al., 2017[23]). Improved sanitation facilities can reduce mortality caused by diarrhoeal diseases, severely affecting both girls and boys (UNICEF, 2021[24]). Cultural biases favouring caring for boys over girls may lead to differentiated impacts for them (Jarman et al., 2018[25]). Gender-specific sanitation issues are not limited to health concerns, however; in countries such as India, where sanitation facilities are not easily accessible and open defecation is more common, privacy concerns force women to wait until after dark, negatively affecting their well-being and comfort (Saleem, Burdett and Heaslip, 2019[26]).

The availability of sanitation facilities also influences school attendance. According to UNICEF, in 2013, only 47% of schools in least-developed countries had adequate sanitation facilities. Inadequate sanitation, particularly during menstruation, decreases the likelihood that girls attend school (UNICEF, 2015[27]). In a study on the relation between access to adequate sanitation facilities, menstruation and school absenteeism in India, 40% of girls were found to remain absent from school during their menstruation due to lack of clean toilets, clean water, privacy, soap and sanitary supplies (Vashisht et al., 2018[28]).

Inadequate sanitation and water access in the context of natural disasters and emergencies also has a gendered aspect, as women often carry a disproportionate burden for restoring basic WASH services. For instance, following the 2017 hurricane in Puerto Rico, when technological appliances and sanitation facilities such as water pipes, washing machines and toilets became unavailable, women and men fell back into traditional methods of performing household tasks. This meant that while men contributed to water transportation, women took on increased domestic work including collecting and cleaning with rainwater, bathing children with water from buckets and emptying improvised toilets. In the absence of toilet facilities, women also reported facing privacy challenges as opposed to men who relieved themselves in the open (Oxfam, 2018[29]). While humanitarian interventions often focus on restoring WASH infrastructure and services, they sometimes ignore the differentiated effects on women and on their domestic work, which is more difficult to measure, yet can be alleviated by providing financial and physical tools that ease domestic tasks.

Transboundary basins cover over half of our planet’s land surface, account for about 60% of global freshwater flow and provide a home for over 40% of the world’s population (UNECE, n.d.[30]). Co-operation between and among riparian countries could therefore be key for achieving SDG 6. More specifically, SDG Target 6.5 calls for the implementation “by 2030 [of] integrated water resources management at all levels including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate”. Taking into consideration a gender sensitive approach during the design and implementation of countries’ relevant strategies, policies and programmes, while considering each transboundary basin’s own topographic characteristics and particular features, may have a positive effect on co-operation.

As an example, the UNESCO-IHP Governance of Groundwater Resources in Transboundary Aquifers (GGRETA) project applies a gender-sensitive assessment approach on three transboundary aquifers located in Central America, Southern Africa and Central Asia. In the case of the Stampriet Transboundary Aquifer System (Botswana, Namibia and South Africa) the project focuses on providing science-based gender data. For the Ocotepeque-Citala Transboundary Aquifer (El Salvador and Honduras) the focus was on examining gender issues as part of stakeholder involvement in water governance (UN and UNESCO, 2018[31]). The project is linked to the UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP), mentioned below (Section 7.4).

The role of women in effective water management has been recognised in global water fora for decades.1 Particularly in developing countries, women are the primary water decision makers at the household level. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) research shows that communities where women are included in water management achieve measurably better outcomes, including better-functioning water systems, expanded access and economic and environmental benefits (UNDP, 2006[32]). Enhancing women’s access to safe water has positive effects on social inclusion, poverty alleviation, health, environmental sustainability and food security. Involving women in water and sanitation management, taking their needs into account, and including them in budgeting decisions can help orientate scarce funding towards sustainable solutions that benefit communities as a whole (Sandys, 2005[33])

Women’s knowledge of local natural resources and skills in household water management could be leveraged to shape conservation efforts through awareness-building campaigns (OECD, 2018[34]); (Benedict and Hussein, 2019[35]). Moreover, their experience in primary caregiving puts women in a unique position to instil water-saving values for future generations. A 2006 study on water and sanitation projects conducted by the International Water and Sanitation Centre (IRC) across 15 countries found that projects that ensured the full participation of women at all stages were more sustainable and effective than those that did not (UNESCO, 2006[36]). Evidence from 121 rural water supply projects studied by the World Bank shows that the projects are 6 to 7 times more effective than others when women are involved (World Bank, 1995[37]). Hence, women should be acknowledged as key agents in water management, especially in the context of climate change mitigation.

UNDP research on 44 water projects across Asia and Africa shows that communities use water services more sustainably when both men and women are engaged in policy-design. When faced with scarcity in these communities, women are key in ensuring equity and justice in resource management as well as peace and stability (Trivedi, 2018[38]).

There is also evidence of similar positive outcomes when women assume leadership roles in the water sector. For instance, in Uganda, gender strategies developed by Maria Mutagamba during her term as Minister of State for Water ensured women’s role in decision-making committees and led to an increase in access to safe water from 51% to 61% in two years (Government of Uganda Ministry of Water and Environment, 2010[39]). Similarly, in Tanzania, women altruistically share water resources regardless of availability, further reinforcing differentiated management of the commons (Lecoutere, D’Exelle and Van Campenhout, 2015[40]).

Despite these positive examples, on a broader scale women are marginalised in water governance and have poor access to agricultural inputs and productive resources (e.g. irrigation, technology, credit), which can have implications for sustainable water management (Njie and Ndiaye, n.d.[41]) (Sadoff, Borgomeo and De Waal, 2017[42]). Globally, women comprise less than 17% of the hygiene, sanitation and water force (Spencer et al., 2017[43]).

The link between gender equality, climate change and water resources management is addressed by UNESCO and its World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP). The 2020 World Water Development Report co-ordinated by WWAP highlights the differentiated effects of droughts, waterborne diseases and water contamination between women and girls, and men. It also argues for the need to collect better gender-disaggregated data on climate change to support gender-sensitive policy solutions. Increasing women’s participation in decision making around water management is also highlighted, as it can lead to gender mainstreaming in disaster risk reduction strategies (UNESCO and UN-Water, 2020[44]).

Looking at the proportion of climate-related aid that also supports the achievement of gender equality, the water supply and sanitation sector falls second to agriculture, forestry and fishing, with 46% targeting gender equality as a significant or principal objective, on average per year in 2018-19 (GENDERNET, 2021[45]). Gender equality is increasingly becoming integrated in climate-related aid to water. A five-year project in Mexico, supported by the Inter-American Development Bank’s Multilateral Investment Fund, led to the avoidance of 212 000 tons of CO2 emissions by improving the sanitary facilities in about 17 000 households. The project also led to the elimination of water losses and to a 60% reduction of energy costs (electricity and gas) used to heat water. Fifty-two women, trained in plumbing, were the ones who carried all technical works (BID, 2016[46]).

With rising tensions surrounding water-resources, ensuring women’s equality and role in water management is essential for national security and social justice. Both intra and interstate conflict could be avoided if such conflict is targeted at the source, empowering women as necessary (Carpioli et al., 2007[47]). Women’s engagement in cross-country water negotiations can bring about agreements, supporting long-term political stability and sustainable growth. Peace and democracy are challenged in countries with high gender inequality (Hudson and den Boer, 2004[48]); (Caprioli, 2004[49]). Improved access to water for agriculture and domestic consumption will allow women more time for income-generating activities and to become more involved in governance and policy-making structures (FAO, 2016[50]).

Acknowledging women’s role in water management also means working with local communities to protect women from gender-based violence. Better infrastructure that ensures water points are local, well regulated and have community-managed pathways that provide safe routes for women when fetching water could help alleviate GBV risk (Pommells et al., 2018[15]).

While the gendered effects of water scarcity are mainly a concern in developing countries, some middle and high income countries also suffer from water stress. Engaging more women in the water sector can bring about more effective and sustainable water management. The Netherlands has been integrating gender equality in water management in both the public and private sectors. Of the ten companies handling the nations’ drinking water supply, five CEOs are women, who themselves encourage other women to enter and pursue careers in water management (Women for Water Partnership, 2014[51]). Surveys in industrialised countries also show that women are more responsible water users than men in household settings (OECD, 2014[52]).

A number of actions can be taken to better mainstream gender into the water agenda:

  • As with other SDGs, the application of a gender equality perspective to SDG 6 is hampered by a lack of readily available quantitative evidence. There is a clear need to breach the data gap, building on other international organisations’ efforts such as UNESCO’s World Water Assessment Programme.

  • Development co-operation actions, including aid disbursement, should integrate gender considerations into water management projects and ensure consultation and joint participation of communities where projects are developed.

  • Considering the high stakes, governance arrangements for water management projects should be reviewed to promote gender equality in decision making and ensure consultation of groups representing women’s voices. While this may already be the case in some OECD countries, it could be further promoted as guidance when implementing the OECD Recommendation on Water (OECD, n.d.[53]).

  • Environmental and social assessments of large water management projects, including dam construction, should include a gender dimension.


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← 1. The importance of involving both women and men in the management of water and sanitation has been recognised at the global level, in the 1977 United Nations Water Conference at Mar del Plata, the International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade (1981-90) and the 1992 International Conference on Water and the Environment, which explicitly recognised the central role of women in the provision, management and safeguarding of water. Reference to the involvement of women in water management is also made in Agenda 21 (Chapter 18) and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation.

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