The world is facing a rising water crisis, affecting the well-being of millions; especially those who still do not have access to adequate and safe drinking water. Globally, waterborne diseases caused by lack of safe drinking water and sanitation facilities kill more young children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined.[i] It is estimated that 884 million people lack access to safe water worldwide. In India, it is estimated that around 37.7 million people are affected by waterborne diseases annually. Despite high allocations of financial resources for sustainable technical solutions and infrastructure facilities by governments, several external funding agencies and policy reforms over the past few decades; millions still suffer the burden of water scarcity and water borne diseases. Rapidly growing population, urbanisation, deforestation, agricultural intensification and climate change contribute to the increased scarcity and degradation of the quality of water resources. Social, economic and political inequities and governance deficits have disempowered millions of families not just in India; but across the developing world, reducing their access to water.
Clearly, sustainability of water resources, equitable access and acceptable quality of drinking water for all will require more than capital investment in infrastructure and public sector water services institutions. It requires integration with community institutions, cultural and social relationships, management control of resources, application of a rights framework and access to suitable regulatory mechanisms. This realisation has led to an increased focus on community-led water governance.
The poor in many villages of the drought prone and climate sensitive Bundelkhand region continue to suffer the humiliation of increasing vulnerability and inadequate access to water; for both domestic and irrigation purposes. This stress is amplified for the marginalised; especially women with pressures of feudalism, social exclusion, gender inequality and low levels of awareness. At home, women hold the primary responsibility of ensuring availability of water and its management to satisfy the needs of their family and livestock. They are the prime users of domestic water for cooking, washing, sanitation and family hygiene.
In trying to meet family needs with the meagre resources at their disposal, women often accord the lowest priority to their own needs. Not surprisingly, we find women most vulnerable to water borne and personal hygiene related diseases. With little control over the management of local resources or influence on the quality or availability of water, women are in a catch 22 situation. Despite considerable knowledge of water resources including quality, reliability and storage methods; their voice is not taken into account by local decision makers in the management or governance of water.
In this seemingly dismal scenario, a group of women federation members in Jhansi stepped out to break local customs and took ownership to improve the situation. Women from five villages of Babina and Baragaon blocks of Jhansi district came together in a mission mode to develop a ‘women led water supply management system’ with the objective to ensure safe drinking water at the doorstep of every household. Mamta Bundela and Shivkumari, two Anganwadi (child care) workers have led this initiative. The first step, along with other federation members was to encourage women of these five villages to unite against the rampant social and gender discrimination related to water management.
According to Mamta Bundela, the president of Sahyogini Mahila Mandal, the women’s federation, “we are the key players in collecting, handling and storing water in households; as well as in the fields, then why should we not take the ownership of its management? Because, we bear the brunt of poor water management; therefore, we have a right and a responsibility to participate effectively in the process of decision making regarding this issue.” In order to strengthen their role in water related areas, Development Alternatives supported the federation members by building their capacities in various aspects of water management such as water conservation, water quality parameters, impacts on health, sanitation and source safety aspects, household level water treatment, technical agricultural practices with efficient use of water and related government schemes and programmes.
First, the women started discussing water related issues and their remedies during the monthly meetings of the Self Help Groups, making other community members aware and participate in the Gram Sabha meetings to voice their demands. Women of these groups led by the federation members are now taking initiatives to establish ‘Community Owned and Community Operated’ (COCO) drinking water supply service in three villages. With capital for pipeline infrastructure made available by Panchayat funds, the Federation has invested in solar pumps to supply piped water at the street level for the whole village. The water service comes at a small and fixed monthly fee with a provision for household level connection on an additional minimal charge. Metering is being discussed as the next step to ensure equity of use and discourage wastage.
At the Gram Sabha, the village community decided that federation members will take the primary responsibility in the maintenance committee for regular up-keep and monthly fee collection. Asha Kadam and Shiv Kumari, the secretary and cashier of the Women’s Federation are leading the change in Dhikoli and Domagor villages. According to them, “door step supply of water will enable us to save a lot of time and we will no longer have to walk long distances to fetch water. This will enable us to devote more energy to look after our children and their education at home. We can save time and energy to take up additional and new income generating activities. Our daughters will be able to attend school regularly, as now they need not accompany us to fetch water for the family.”
“Our aim is not only to increase access to water, but also to ensure safe and clean water. We want our children and family to be free from water borne diseases,” says Mamta. For this, training in water quality monitoring and household methods of water purification is useful.
The Panchayat representatives from these villages have been motivated sufficiently and are supporting this women-led initiative by allocating Panchayat funds for the complete labour cost of setting up the infrastructure. This collaborative women-led community approach is a promising model for reliable, sustainable and well-managed drinking water supplies. And, it will go a long way in meeting the goal of improved health and dignified lives through access and availability of safe water for all in the villages, now and in future.q