Author : Debosmita Sarkar

Published on Mar 21, 2024

As India navigates the complexities of sustainable development, ensuring gender equality in the waterscape emerges as a pivotal element in creating a more equitable future

Unseen currents, missed opportunities: Women in water management

This article is a part of the essay series: World Water Day 2024: Water for Peace, Water for Life

Water is not just a drop in the bucket—it keeps us ticking. Worldwide, communities rely on water for drinking, sanitation, agriculture, industry, and energy production. However, managing water resources is a complex and multifaceted challenge, often necessitating coordinated efforts and innovative solutions. On World Water Day 2024, the UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme will release the World Water Development Report titled, ‘Leveraging Water for Peace and Prosperity’, in alignment with this year’s theme ‘Water for Peace’. The report, like in previous years, will be UN-Water’s attempt to offer specific recommendations and highlight best practices that enable countries, organisations, communities, and individuals worldwide to leverage water as a stabilising force, not as a source of conflict. 

Water scarcity or the uneven distribution of quality water resources has often sparked conflicts at various scales, ranging from transboundary conflicts over shared water resources to sectoral or community-level misallocations or incompatibilities. However, key stakeholders at all levels of water governance have come together from time to time to resolve these conflicts, resulting in benefits such as the delivery of safe drinking water, accessible sanitation, food and nutritional security, resilience to climate change impacts, disaster risk reduction, and many others. Here's a piece of the puzzle that doesn't always get the spotlight: women's contributions to using ‘Water for Peace’. When it comes to water, women have been the unsung heroes, contributing one day at a time to accelerating progress along SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation for all by 2030. This indispensable role, however, comes at a significant cost, manifesting as ‘time poverty’—a phenomenon where women find themselves with little to no time for personal development, leisure, or economic activities. This article takes a deep dive into the implications of women's participation in water management for their income generation and, therefore, seeks to build an economic case for supporting alternative pathways of more gender-responsive water management practices.

Time is of the essence

Amidst the discourse on water management, women's significant contributions often remain overlooked. Historically, women have played central roles in ensuring the availability and sustainability of water resources within their households and communities. From collecting water to managing irrigation systems, women have been at the forefront of water-related activities, leveraging their knowledge, skills, and ingenuity to meet their families' and communities' water needs. Data from 61 countries worldwide suggests women and girls bear the primary responsibility for household-level water management in as much as 80 percent of water-stressed or water-deprived households. Under these circumstances, inadequate access to clean water can result in significant time burdens, limiting their capacity to pursue educational opportunities and engage in income-generating activities. The gendered division of labour in water management often exacerbates existing inequalities, leading to disparities in access to resources, decision-making power, and economic opportunities. Water management-related time poverty also highlights the ‘double burden’ placed on some women as they juggle multiple responsibilities, including water collection, household chores, childcare, and income-generating activities. This time poverty not only restricts women's economic participation but also perpetuates cycles of poverty and marginalisation.

In India, the 2019 Time Use Survey Report presented a clear portrayal of the gender disparities in time spent on water management-related unpaid domestic services, indicating that women dedicate a significant amount of their regular work hours to these tasks, averaging nearly five hours a day, while men spend only about an hour and a half. In fact, for households without access to on-premises water facilities across rural and urban India, more than 80 percent of women household members cater to water management-related unpaid domestic service activities. In comparison, only 20 percent of men in these households contribute their time to these necessities. Illuminating the economic repercussions of this gendered ‘time poverty’, a recent study suggests that across India’s states and Union Territories (UTs), an increase in women’s engagement in water management-related unpaid domestic services contributes to as much as a 17-percent decline in the labour force participation ratio. As such, to ensure gender equity in employment rates and promote women’s economic participation despite lower female labour force participation than men, it becomes necessary to incentivise women’s entry into labour markets with higher wage rates than men. However, the ground reality remains starkly different.

The need to incentivise women’s economic participation with higher returns leads to a gender-induced demand segmentation of the Indian labour markets, with variations in women’s time engagement in such activities adversely contributing to as much as a 23-percent variation in the female-to-male wage ratio. 

Turning the tide with alternative pathways

Addressing the intertwined challenges of gender roles in water management and women’s economic participation requires a holistic approach that recognises and mitigates the multifaceted impact of women's unpaid work in the water sector. Empowering women in water governance and management serves as a matter of social justice and a strategic imperative for enhancing the efficiency of water projects and promoting economic growth by generating additional household income. Estimates for Indian states and UTs suggest that even with only a 10- to 50-percent reduction in women’s time poverty emanating from the water sector, the income potential and economic gains can be significant (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Estimated Annual Additional Income per Person with a 10-50 Percent Reduction in Women’s Time Poverty

Source: Author’s estimates

Realising these potential economic benefits necessitates a concerted effort from policymakers, community leaders, and stakeholders across the water sector to implement strategies that empower women, reduce their time poverty, and enable their robust participation in the economy. By adopting strategies that redistribute responsibilities and promote equitable access to quality water resources, we can relieve the excess burden on women and create more sustainable and inclusive water management practices.

One key strategy is to invest in infrastructure and technologies that reduce the time and labour required for water-related tasks, particularly water collection and storage.

Access to improved water sources, such as piped water systems and water storage facilities, can significantly reduce the time and effort women and girls spend on water collection, freeing up valuable time for other activities, including education, income generation, and community participation.

Furthermore, promoting women's participation in decision-making processes related to water management is essential for ensuring that their voices and perspectives are heard and integrated into policies and programmes. Capacity-building initiatives to enhance women's knowledge and skills in sustainable water management practices can also empower women to continue their active roles in water governance without significant time costs. 

By adopting these alternative pathways for creating gender-responsive water management practices, we can make more equitable and sustainable water systems that benefit women, men, and communities. As India navigates the complexities of sustainable development, ensuring gender equality in the waterscape emerges as a pivotal element in creating a more equitable and prosperous future.

(Note – For a more detailed analysis, please see ORF Occasional Paper No. 423, “Gender in the Waterscape: Creating Economic Ripples in India’s Labour Markets”)

Debosmita Sarkar  is a Junior Fellow with the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy at the Observer Research Foundation.

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Debosmita Sarkar

Debosmita Sarkar

Debosmita Sarkar is a Junior Fellow with the SDGs and Inclusive Growth programme at the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy at Observer Research Foundation, India. ...

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