Editor’s Note: In Part Two of this three-part series first published in 2005 in WORD Magazine, freelance writer Saada Branker takes a look at “Mainstreaming Women” as part of the necessary solution to the water crises in Africa.
When the power suddenly switched off on a hot, sun-kissed afternoon in August 2003, activity in cities throughout much of the Northeastern United States and Ontario grinded to a halt. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission eventually confirmed nine nuclear power reactors were inexplicably shut down, six in New York and one each in New Jersey, Ohio and Michigan. The outage also blanketed parts of northern Ontario, then spread deeper into the province. It was the largest power failure in North American history.
Crowds in every affected city were drawn to battery-powered radios for word on the latest developments. As many as 50 million people realized they had to make do with less, so they prepared to make the most of it. But play time was over before it even got started. At issue was water supply. Hours into the blackout, officials in Cleveland said without the power to pump water to 1.5 million people, water reserves were running low.
The Downriver Wastewater Treatment Plant in Wayne County, Michigan was unable to pump or treat wastewater for over 20 hours. It would take nearly two weeks before the system was running normal again
Some water treatment plants had already slipped into a dire predicament. The Downriver Wastewater Treatment Plant in Wayne County, Michigan was unable to pump or treat wastewater for over 20 hours. It would take nearly two weeks before the system was running normal again.
In Ontario, health officials called on residents to conserve water and stay hydrated. Citizens headed for stores selling water and cleared their shelves. Days later, rolling blackouts throughout the province gave pockets of residents power and then took it away for two hours at a time — power sharing geared at servicing as many people as possible. Imagine. Had the engineers warned the electricity would be down a couple of weeks, these same people would have had to travel some distance for clean water. The safe and legal disposal of human waste would have also been a pressing concern for residents in hundreds of communities.
Days after much of the power was restored, it was revealed power transmission breakdowns in Ohio were to blame. Still, the blackout provided an insightful lesson. Exposed was everyone’s blind reliance on a resource that flows in and out of people’s lives with little attention. For all its life-sustaining worth, water in North America is simply expected to be there. When it’s not, all the right officials jump into action so people aren’t without for too long. If only developing countries could be so fortunate.
The African Experience
Millions of people left in the dark last August were forced to consider their demand and supply for water. But two days, even two weeks, of such deep thinking presents a water-downed version of what millions of African families face. Every day, all day, men and women have to carefully calculate and then ration their water.
Having delivered civilization into the world, Africa now nurtures a population of about 800 million inhabitants. As that number grows, so does demand for water. Besides human consumption and sanitation, water is needed for any economic development. Consider it the most raw a good can get.
The Nile, for example, spans more than 6,600 km from southeast to North Africa, making it the longest river system in the world. Ten countries make up the Nile Basin: Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. To quench the demand of about 300 million citizens, these nations fight to negotiate access to the river and its tributaries, waterfalls, rapids and streams.
Yet, Africa does get her share of water. Where the struggle develops is in the distribution of the precious resource, creating the illusion of scarcity. The Nile, for example, spans more than 6,600 km from southeast to North Africa, making it the longest river system in the world. Ten countries make up the Nile Basin: Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. To quench the demand of about 300 million citizens, these nations fight to negotiate access to the river and its tributaries, waterfalls, rapids and streams.
But the dismal numbers keep surfacing. The World Water Council, a think tank on global water policies, cites the percentage of Africans without access to clean water or adequate sanitation is increasing. The Council reports that 1 in 3 Africans does not have access to an improved water supply. In fledgling urban centres, 1 in 6 people are grappling with a water shortage.
The poor distribution of water on the continent is actually nature’s doing. At the World Water Forum in Japan last year, the African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW) expressed concerns. Despite high annual averages of rainfall, many African countries will face a water crisis brought on by drought, soil erosion or floods. AMCOW referred to projections warning by 2010, over 400 million people will live in 17 African countries where water is scarce. This scarcity, they said, would severely limit food production, the eco-system and socio-economic development. With such bleak predictions echoed by various international agencies, the idea of development throughout Africa may seem like a pipe dream.
In countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania there thrives some austerity. The water shortage in many regions hits home for a significant portion of the population — particularly the women.
Gender roles in many societies throughout Africa are such that women are responsible for the family’s nutrition and hygiene. When water supply runs low, the stress runs high among women and girls because they shoulder the task of replenishing the resource for the household.
The World Wades In
The prospect of women and water is gaining international attention. The United Nations has agencies and task forces dedicated to international water policies. Two years ago, a press release from its Environment Programme (UNEP) described the experiences of the Masai women in Nairobi, Kenya.
“Studies from East Africa show that the time spent finding and collecting water has, on average, more than doubled in the past three decades from nine minutes to 21 minutes. Many women living in dry and semi-arid areas tell us that they must walk up to 10 kilometres each day to find sufficient supplies,”
“Studies from East Africa show that the time spent finding and collecting water has, on average, more than doubled in the past three decades from nine minutes to 21 minutes. Many women living in dry and semi-arid areas tell us that they must walk up to 10 kilometres each day to find sufficient supplies,” read the release.
Herein lies the problem. Women often lose time that could be best spent in school, working, or handling other duties. Carrying water cans also contributes to women’s joint problems and other ailments. With each trip to a water source, women and girls burn up a significant amount of their calorie intake. Their loss impedes something as delicate as a region’s productivity, and can slow the pace of overall development.
UNEP, like several international agencies, is trying to dilute the effects of a water crisis in African countries. Currently, the UN reports over 1 billion people in developing countries lack adequate access to water, while 2.4 billion are without basic sanitation. Today, many heads of states believe they will follow through in their goal to reduce, by half, the proportion of people in the world without access to clean drinking water and sanitation by the year 2015. This aim has been supported by aid agencies and panned by critics alike. But there is agreement. Women in these countries should have say in the creation and management of water sources.
The Rally For Women
In a telephone interview with WORD, Marcia Brewster mumbles to herself about managing the paperwork covering her desk. That desk is situated in her New York office at the United Nations. It’s from here that Brewster talks like she just read the five most recent studies on women and sustainable development. She’s that well versed.
“The definition of access to safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization, is 20 litres, or about 5 gallons, within 1 kilometre walking distance to the household,” explains Brewster, editor-in-chief of Natural Resources Forum, a publication of the Sustainable Development Division at the UN.
Environment Canada reports the average toilet in Canada can use up to 20 litres per flush. A five-minute shower takes about 100 litres of water. On average, Canadians’ domestic water use amounts to about 343 litres per person, every day. In Africa, where a household often has several more family members, each person uses about 30 litres of water a day
She means 20 litres per person. To put in perspective, Environment Canada reports the average toilet in Canada can use up to 20 litres per flush. A five-minute shower takes about 100 litres of water. On average, Canadians’ domestic water use amounts to about 343 litres per person, every day. In Africa, where a household often has several more family members, each person uses about 30 litres of water a day.
“This whole thing is about getting more women involved in decision making.” Brewster is referring to the work of the UN interagency task force on water and gender, formed last year. As manager of that task force, she says involving women must be part of every effort, from the proposals outlined at international summits, to the actual work carried out in the communities fighting water shortages. As she lays out the background, Brewster often mentions something called the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) of 2000, the Johannesburg Earth Summit of two years ago, and other daunting terms like “gender mainstreaming.”
Brewster’s interagency task force was built on the idea that women’s perspectives, highlighted at a global women’s conference in 1995, had to be included in the MDG goals for water and sanitation. “The positive thing is the suggestions came from the gender side. When they were presented to the water side, the MDG was very responsive,” says Brewster. It all sounds well intentioned, yet disturbingly abstract, a fact not escaping this UN official. “We did have an effect. People in the conference were made aware. How to implement gender mainstreaming is another problem,” she admits. Her task force has no direct connection to the grassroots organizations working within the communities.
Sounding like a politically charged concept from a women’s studies textbook, mainstreaming gender is an approach praised by its supporters. Defined loosely, gender mainstreaming, as it relates to water, requires tapping into the concerns and recommendations from women responsible for water in African households. Teams solicit this input when creating and managing water sources, including any research and training. So, those who have to use it should have a say in what, where, and how to build it.
Canada’s WaterCan Can
Brewster says good things about Canada and its International Development Agency (CIDA). She notes it, and similar agencies in Norway and the Netherlands, financially back projects incorporating gender mainstreaming.
One of those development projects involves WaterCan, an Ottawa-based NGO. Founded in the 80s (the decade of water as declared by the UN), WaterCan has evolved into its present role. The organization funds water projects overseen by African NGOs now working throughout Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.
Gary Pluim is WaterCan’s executive director since February of this year. It’s no accident his organization supports African initiatives. “Because we firmly believe the know-how and technical expertise are in these countries. We’re recognizing they have the skill set. Second, we have an opportunity to help the small NGOs to grow and expand. We provide the funding.”
That approach is supported by CIDA. “One third of our funding comes from CIDA. As of year’s end on March 31, WaterCan raised $820,000. That’s $350,000 from CIDA and the rest from Canadian donors and corporations,” says Pluim. WaterCan received approval in March 2003 for its Nile Basin Region Integrated Water Supply, Hygiene and Sanitation Project. Over three years, the Canadian NGO gets $1,050,000 from CIDA for development projects that will “benefit and involve women” — one of many aims listed in WaterCan’s own criteria for supporting African NGOs.
“I don’t think that even in North America, women’s equality is a given,” says Pluim. “We want people to know that’s a (funding) criteria at WaterCan. We’re making a statement.”
WaterCan’s man in the field is George Yap, program director managing partnership projects. Yap travels two or three times a year to regions like Nairobi and Addis Ababa before returning to Canada with knowledge gleaned from frontline workers.
“In terms of developing toilets or latrines, women are disproportionately affected by the lack of facilities,” says Yap. The inadequate sanitation in schools means menstruating girls have a hard time, explains this program director. He says many female students opt out of attending classes, missing out on opportunities for formal education.
“The average Canadian would not call some of these buildings schools because of the lack of water and basic sanitation facilities,” Yap maintains.
Watering The Grassroots
To get its partners and funders thinking about women, WaterCan takes its cue from the women.
“You need to create a water committee of individuals drawn from the community. We have found, by establishing these water committees, it provides a greater forum to engage men and women in discussions about shared decision-making and shared responsibilities,” says Yap. “Men realize women can provide contributions. It’s a springboard to get men and women involved in development issues.”
Probably no one understands this concept more than African women. Now that global agencies and NGOs are rallying for their cause, it’s hard to ignore fears that these international partners will project their own ideas.
“When you talk to policy people, they’re very eloquent. But the reality is, when you’re on the ground in the trenches, cultural issues are a challenge
“When you talk to policy people, they’re very eloquent. But the reality is, when you’re on the ground in the trenches, cultural issues are a challenge,” says Yap, who remains mindful of social engineering. “It’s easy to say it should be so, but it’s different on the ground. In Western Kenya, we learned that one of the biggest taboos is that in-laws can never use the same toilet facilities as the wife. If you weren’t aware of that, you could be promoting the wrong sanitation strategy. In terms of what’s achievable, it’s all context-based.”
From where he lives and works, Josiah Omotto knows about this context. He is the executive director of an NGO called Maji Na Ufanisi, meaning water and development. Based in Nairobi, the organization is a WaterCan partner. Together the NGOs fund and oversee development that will increase access to water and sanitation for poverty-stricken settlements in both urban and rural Kenya.
Omotto says he has seen women and children from up to 100 houses — often 10×10-ft. shacks — queue at one community pipe. They carry with them what is known as “Jerry Cans.” Each Jerry Can holds about seven litres of water.
“We find a household uses between six and seven cans minimum, per day,” says Omotto. With water not easily available in Nairobi’s slum districts, Omotto encourages water committees. Forming these groups, he says, help push water development projects forward.
But apparently, full cooperation is not for everyone. Omotto refers to an un-named international company that recently set up in Nairobi, drilling wells. He describes its workers as a committee of “white scholars.”
“There is no deliberate effort to involve women and men in the community,” says Omotto. People in the community become objects and not the subjects of reform.” It’s this phenomenon that has critics wary of international intervention in Africa’s water projects. But Omotto is convinced communication can best handle the ignorance.
“Drilling a hole, digging a well, that’s easy stuff. That’s what we call hardware. What’s difficult is the software”
Yap believes in unearthing new perspectives to solve the age-old problems of water shortages. To date, WaterCan’s projects in Kenya include water storage tanks connected to communal tap stands in the Kibera and Kiambiu districts of south central Nairobi. Also new sanitation facilities in Kenya’s western regions are improvements over pit latrines, which sometimes overflow into water drains and ditches. In all this development work, WaterCan advocates women’s steady involvement.
“Drilling a hole, digging a well, that’s easy stuff. That’s what we call hardware, “ says Yap. “What’s difficult is the software — making sure the appropriate management is in place with education and training. That’s a lot more difficult,” he insists. “Handling that software, that’s the secret to success for any water project. Unsuccessful projects occur when the software aspect has been neglected.”
Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency.
In part 3 of Africa’s Water crisis, the debate to privatize water and its impact on successful water development projects.