A sinking feeling: Global South's most vulnerable tread carefully as water crisis worsens

A sinking feeling: World's vulnerable struggle to stay afloat
5 min read
15 November, 2022

Women in developing countries will spend 200 million hours every day collecting water as world leaders meet at the two-week COP27 summit. 

In August 2016, UNICEF reported that girls and women spent 200 million hours every day collecting water. According to WHO and UNICEF's 2021 Joint Monitoring Programme, 771 million people had no clean water close to home. 

If we do the maths, this means during the two-week COP27 summit women will have walked 2,800 million hours for water.  

"1.42 billion people – including 450 million children – live in areas of high or extremely high-water vulnerability"

Women and their children in these countries walk three and a half miles on average while carrying five gallons of water to survive. 

COP27 world leaders will make climate change decisions that will potentially impact the number of hours girls and women responsible in 8 out of 10 households will walk in 61 developing countries to collect water.  

This back-breaking walk made by girls and women collecting water robs them of an education, their childhood, to earn an income, their health, and family time and puts them at risk of sexual and physical exploitation.  

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Concern Worldwide reports that women like Filema Mekonen and her three children face many risks on their trips to fetch water. Filema has to walk two hours in southwestern Ethiopia late at night to collect water before it is contaminated by livestock. 

“Unless we were guarded by our husbands or other grown men, we were often subjected to risks of wild animal attacks or rape. Even my six-year-old daughter was required to fetch water from that risky area because I had no option,” Filema said.  

I will always remember visiting Bangladesh in 1985 when I was 12. I looked for that iconic image of a woman carrying her water vessel on her head, and a child on her hip, portrayed in Bollywood films with an allure of mystery under the trim of her saree. 

I did see women walking with water vessels on their heads swaying under their precious burden along uneven roads. On closer inspection, I saw crushed faces, parched lips, squinting eyes, bleeding heels and the painful tilt of thin bodies with elongated arms weighing them down with the weight of the full vessel.  

"This back-breaking walk made by girls and women collecting water robs them of an education, their childhood, to earn an income, their health, and family time and puts them at risk of sexual and physical exploitation"

Last summer, Bangladesh was plagued by devastating floods, and more recently the super cyclone, Sitrang, pushing girls and women further into water poverty, deprivation and exploitation. 

A few years ago, my family members and friends sent funds for tube wells to be built for widows and their families, but tragically the tube wells were destroyed in the recent severe monsoon floods.   

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In 2021, UNICEF’s Water Security for All initiative researched communities where it takes over 30 minutes to collect water. Their analysis revealed that 1.42 billion people – including 450 million children – live in areas of high or extremely high-water vulnerability. 

UN-Water reported that 733 million people live in high and critically water-stressed countries and predicts that in less than a decade 1.8 billion people will live in water-stressed areas as a result of climate change and population. 

This will be devastating for girls and women forced to spend an ever-increasing amount of time walking, collecting, and carrying water risking their health, family and lives. 

Simon Stiell, Executive Secretary of UNFCCC, told COP27 delegates from 200 countries: “Today a new era begins – and we begin to do things differently.”  

If the situation is to be managed more effectively, world leaders must pledge net-zero hours for women who spend hours walking in developing countries to collect clean water for their children and families, especially in the new era of climate change gender equality. 

COP27 heads of state, primarily men, must imagine what women could have achieved in those priceless hours for themselves and their families, not to mention the economic impact on their countries. 

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In her address at the COP27 summit, Barbados PM Mia Mottley said:  “1.5 to stay alive cannot be that mantra and I take no pride in being associated with having to repeat it repeatedly. We have the collective capacity to transform.”  

Part of the collective capacity to transform must focus on building infrastructure to bring water points closer to home, whether building wells or boreholes and delivering emergency water aid during times of drought and conflict.  

The East African region, from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and Somalia is facing its worst drought in more than 40 years pushing millions to starvation. 

A recent Research by the British Geological Survey found most countries in Africa had groundwater reserves that could hold up for at least five years.  The challenge is funding an effective safe water supply system for those who most need it.  

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The burden of carrying water by women and girls is incriminating evidence that climate change is not “gender neutral”.  Water is a women’s issue because it is women who make life-changing choices from sacrificing their hygiene for their families to deciding whether to use contaminated water to cook food for their children in the face of starvation. 

COP27 leaders from rich countries should remember the countries most affected by the devastation of climate change are least responsible for climate change, with just 0.1% accountable for global emissions. 

Countries contributing to climate change but reaping its financial benefits through cheap energy, industrialisation and economic development should pay for the provision of water close to the homes of women and girls affected by water scarcity.  

Access to water and sanitation are human rights. Millions of women across the world depend more on water yet have less access to water – COP27 must end this human rights abuse now.

Rabina Khan is a former Councillor and Special Adviser. She is a London-based writer, an Aziz Foundation Scholar and also works for a national charity empowering girls and women.

Follow her on Twitter: @RabinaKhan