Desertification, Gender, Water

Women and Water access in Desert Areas

This article is written by Costanza Burstin.

In desert areas, droughts and environmental degradations often drastically affect water access. This issue, especially in rural villages, has direct repercussions on women lives. Why so?

Today, nearly two third of the world’s population lives in water scarce territories. Because of global warming, the increase of temperatures and the expansion of dry areas, more and more people have to experience issues related to the lack of safe and reliable water supply. Many rural areas around the world do not have access to running water within their houses still. In such contexts, the roles related to water collection and management often change according to gender identity. In natural resources-dependent areas women are indeed often responsible for water administration in the household[1].

Catalano Gonzaga (2012) in “Child Survival in a Changing Climate”

It has been estimated that 63% of rural families depend on women to obtain and manage drinking water within the household[2]. This role assigned to women is not only related to daily domestic tasks such as cooking, cleaning and washing, but it also involves important health and hygiene issues: if water supply becomes scarce or contaminated, women and girls are responsible to find alternative water sources for the well-being of their whole family and the rest of the community[3].

In desert areas, where water access is particularly reduced, this responsibility is even greater. For most women living in these territories, collecting and providing clean water for their families, become absolute priorities and the principal activities of their daily life.

These women, working and living in close contact with natural resources in dry and hostile territories, acquire and develop valuable knowledge in terms of environmental management. They learn how to tackle ecological threats and deal with a limited access of resources as water. Moreover, the practice of water collection can also represent an important aspect of socialization among the different women and an opportunity to foster group cohesion[4].

Nevertheless, the effects of desertification process still represent a considerable threat[5]. The continuous decrease of water access, indeed, can provoke series of negative consequences for women that go beyond the responsibility of collecting water. It includes also other significant, indirect and less visible facts. From a women perspective, the problem of lack of water, manifests itself on three different but interconnected levels:

Ankur Lokre

Water Collection

Many women coming from remote villages bear the burden of fetching water for their families. They are spending a significant amount of time everyday commuting to search this resource from distant sources. In case of drought, desertification and water shortage, the distances to reach an accessible water source increases even more. Therefore, women are often forced to move away from their village and walk for hours before finding clean water. It has been estimated that in certain areas, women and young girls can walk up to 6 km each day to fetch water[6].

These long daily journeys for water collection can be very dangerous and physically demanding. In order to transport water, women carry heavy buckets weighing up to 20 kg. These heavy loads over long distances can cause damages such as health issues, back and chest pain, arthritic diseases and may develop deformities. Moreover, getting away from the village before or after daylight hours, can make these women very vulnerable to rape and sexual violence. In addition, spending most of their day in collecting water, those women lose the opportunity to be engaged in other working activities and earn some money. Moreover, their young daughters, having no time to go to school, are eventually excluded the educational system[7].

Water Contamination

The problem of water in dry areas is not only related to its difficult and distant access. Water issue concerns also its contamination, caused by the progressive environmental degradation due to desertification.

Women living in these geographic contexts are not only responsible to meet their family water needs, but they also must insure this one is clean. Indeed, dirty and contaminated water can provoke serious diseases, sometimes even deadly ones. Therefore, women are not only at risk of sickness, but are also responsible for the health and well being of their entire family members, especially their children.

The issue of water contamination can have serious impacts on:

  • Childcare. Children are particularly vulnerable to water contamination and the absence of safe water can be very dangerous for them. It has been estimated that there is a high correlation between children mortality and lack of access to clean and drinkable water. Approximately every 15 seconds, a child dies because of water related diseases such as diarrhea, typhoid, cholera and dysentery.
  • Childbearing. Contaminated water can provoke several diseases for mothers, increasing the rates of maternal mortality. It also impacts their capacity to cope with pregnancy, childbirth and beyond[8].

Most of these women hence, especially in extreme contexts, are often forced to deal with a paradoxical choice: “certain death without water or possible death from illness due to dirty water”[9].

Costanza Burstin – Modiya Mansar (Gajner)


Without a water supply system, the improper access to toilet and sanitation facilities creates other problems as well. In many desert areas of the worlds, this represents an important and central topic where women are particularly involved and struggled with. The lack of sanitation systems (essential to maintain good health and hygiene) indeed harms women very severely. Having to urinate, defecate and deal with menstrual hygiene in public open spaces, they often have to wait for very longtime in order to reach remote and dangerous places. In many communities it is not even acceptable for women to release themselves during the day, so they have to wait until night.

This aspect can cause serious risks for women safety. Urinating and defecating in public, not only can be extremely humiliating, because of the lack of privacy, especially in most culturally conservative societies, but it can also provoke serious health diseases related to delay and waiting hours before night fall. Moreover moving during the night in isolated zones, they can be expose to sexual harassments and wild animals’ assaults (such as snake). All these consequences often trigger psychological stress and thereby affect their mental health as well[10].

Furthermore, the lack of sanitation facilities and latrines can have a negative impact on girls’ education. Worldwide, a significant number of schools do not have proper toilets facilities. This can keep young girls from enrolling in the education system, especially when they reach puberty and begin to menstruate. The lack of privacy within school institutions often makes girls abandon schools earlier[11].

In conclusion, the difficult access to available and clean water in many desert territories not only represents a threat for its communities but it also has a direct impact on women’s life. All these women’s responsibilities related to water management and collection can turn into negative consequences in terms of health, safety, education and life opportunities.


About the auhtor: Costanza Burstin is an Italian Anthropologist and Documentary Filmmaker. She studied Anthropology and Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. After having work for a period on gender and environmental impact in India, she specialized on Visual Research and Filmmaking at Goldsmiths University. At the moment, she is working on a visual ethnographic project about the interaction among women, water and natural resources in a desert rural community in Rajasthan (India).

References and bibliography
-Aureli, A. Brelet, C. (2004), Women and Water: and Ethical Issue, UNESCO International Hydrological Programme,
-Brody, A. Demetriades, J. Esplen, E. (2008), Gender and Climate Change: Mapping the Linkages. A Scoping Study on Knowledge and Gaps, BRIDGE (Development – Gender).
-Catalano Gonzaga, L. Photo Report (2012), Climate Survival in a Changing Climate
-IFAD Report (2010), Gender and Desertification. Expanding Roles of Women to restore dry land areas,
– IFAD Report (2010), Gender and Desertification. Making ends meet in dry lands,
-IFAD Report (2007), Gender and Water,
-O’Reilly, K. (2006), “Traditional” women, “modern” water: linking gender and commodification in Rajsthan, India, Elsevier, 37(6): 958-972.
-Strochlic, N. (2017), L’acqua è donna, National Geographic, 39(4).
-UN Report (2004), Facts About Women and Water,
-UN Water Policy Brief (2006), Gender, Water and Sanitation, 

Cliquer pour accéder à un_water_policy_brief_2_gender.pdf

-UN Women Watch Report (2009), Women, Gender Equality and Climate Change,
-UNDESA Report (2010), The World’s Women 2010. Trends and Statistics,
-UNEP Report (2013), Women and Natural Resources. Unlocking the Peacebuilding Potential,
-VOSS Foundation, Water and Women,, Facts about Women and Water Crisis,, India’s Water and Sanitation Crisis,
-WUNRN Report, Women and Water. A Truly Global Struggle, Global Justice Now,
[1] IFAD Report 2007; Brondi, Demetriades and Esplen, 2008
[2] Strochlic, 2017
[3] IFAD Report, 2007; WUNRN Report
[4] IFAD Report, 2007:3
[5] IFAD Report, 2010
[6] Strochlic, 2017; UN Woman Watch Report 2009; IFAD, 2007
[7] WUNRN Report, Voss Foundation
[8] WUNRN Report;; Aureli and Brelet, 2004
[10] UN Water Report, 2006; IFAD Report, 2007

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