Built Environment, Economic Development, Government Policy, Poverty, Water and Sanitation

Examining How Women are Influenced by Inaccessibility to Clean Water

~ Written by Joann Varickanickal (Contact: joann.varickanickal@gmail.com)

Since 1990, 2-3 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water sources, however, much is yet to be done, as billions still do not have access to safe drinking water (Dora, et al., 2015). This has led to several negative health consequences among many communities, as one-third of deaths are linked to the intake of contaminated water in low-resourced countries (West & Hirsch, 2013). Women are often responsible for housework such as cooking, cleaning and maintaining good hygiene. They are also mainly responsible for the care of children and the sick. As all of these tasks require the use of water, women in low-resourced countries are disproportionately affected by the inaccessibility to safe water.


Risks Associated with Water Collection

In 71 percent of households in sub-Saharan Africa women are responsible for collecting water (West & Hirsch, 2013).  As a result, in places such as the mountainous areas of Eastern Africa, women use up to 27 percent of their caloric intake to get water (West & Hirsch, 2013). Sometimes, they must travel a long distance, often several times in one day. This can lead to physical strain, especially among the elderly. This strain can be exacerbated by extreme heat or with heavy pumps at well sites. Water collection can also be dangerous in remote locations where there is increased risk of rape or other forms of violence.


Impacts on Women as Caretakers, and the Terminally Ill

With a high prevalence of HIV and AIDS in these regions, there has also been an increase in care needed for the terminally ill, and once again, it is the responsibility of the woman to provide the needed care (West & Hirsch, 2013). This involves emotional support, but also other aspects such as bathing and toileting. Providing this type of assistance can become more difficult when there is little accessibility to clean water. Furthermore, caregivers also have an increased chance of developing physical pain and infections because of the risks they are exposed to. Increasing accessibility to clean water will not only improve the outcomes of HIV treatment, but it will also reduce the burden of care on women. As a result, this can improve the quality of life for both groups (Figure 1).



Figure 1: How improved water and sanitation influences the health of those with HIV/AIDS, and caretakers (West & Hirsch, 2013).

Overall, inaccessibility to clean water increases the emotional distress on women and reduces the level of care they are able to provide to those around them. When mothers have poor health status they are unable to provide the adequate resources needed for the well being of their children, which can lead to growth stunts (Requejo, et al., 2015).

Like any other public health issue, this one is complex. Many factors must be examined to determine how improvements can be made to increase the availability of safe water, while also empowering women. For example, while women have to travel long distances in order to get clean water, this also gives them a chance to socialize with other women and spend some time away from the home. Thus, what can be done to preserve this time for social interaction, while minimizing the health risks?  In order to answer this and similar questions, governments and NGOs must critically analyze social systems, specifically gender norms, health systems and physical infrastructure in low-resourced countries.



Dora, C., Haines, A., Balbus, J., Fletcher, E., Adair-Rohani, H., Alabaster, G., et al. (2015). Indicators linking health and sustainability in the post-2015 development agenda. The Lancet , 385 (9965), 380-391.

Requejo, J. H., Bryce, J., Barros, J. A., Berman, P., Bhutta, P., Bhutta, Z., et al. (2015). Countdown to 2015 and beyond: Fulfilling the health agenda for women and children. The Lancet , 385 (9966), 466-476.

West, B. S., & Hirsch, J. S. (2013). HIV and H2O: Tracing the connections between gender, water and HIV. AIDS Behaviour , 17 (5), 1675-1682.