Gender-sensitive water management: A cornerstone for equitable outcomes
Need to place "gender" at the centre of both international and national water and sanitation agenda
Women fetching water in Rajasthan (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Women and young girls fetching water from distant sources, walking miles, carrying loads on the head, some pots precariously placed at their waist is a familiar scene, especially in low and medium-income countries where water scarcity is high. It pushes communities to poverty and poses challenges for sustainable development.

The presence or absence of a safe and sufficient water supply and service has a disproportionate effect on the everyday lives of women and girls. Women around the world spend a collective 200 million hours collecting water. In India in 2018, nearly 20% of households in urban areas lacked access to drinking water facilities within the household premises. Almost 28% of households did not use an improved source of drinking water.

The health and economic burdens of insufficient drinking water are incredibly high. An estimated 21% of infectious diseases in India are related to water. The economic costs of these water-related diseases are an estimated USD 600 million annually, with 73 million days of lost labour. Women pre-dominantly are responsible for managing the family's health and taking care of children and the elderly in case of a health crisis that may keep them away from the labour market and productive work. This unpaid care economy work leaves hardly any time for women to spend on leisure activities or participating in community and productive roles.

Furthermore, cities in India face the tremendous challenge of water scarcity due to massive population growth and rapid, unplanned urbanization. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report released in 2020 projects that almost 30 cities in India would face a 'grave water risk' by 2050 due to a sharp increase in population.

With the rise in population, the load on water supply is going to increase manifold. In such a scenario, urban poor residing in slums and squatter settlements face the brunt of the crisis. They often have to rely on water tankers, face social conflicts due to limited water supply, incur higher costs to buy water, suffer poor health, and miss days of labour and school. Especially in disasters and health crises like COVID 19, the water-related burden on women exacerbates.

The study on "Re-FORM: Lessons for Urban Governance futures from the Pandemic" conducted by the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) in partnership with the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) in 11 cities revealed that in the absence of in-house piped water supply in dense slums, residents were exposed to the risk of contracting the virus while fetching water from community stand posts or tankers. In these dense settlements, it was challenging to follow social distancing norms. Further, due to lockdown restrictions and containment measures, it became increasingly difficult to access faraway water sources, contributing to an additional burden on women.

Improving access is an essential starting point

Therefore, a regular and quality water supply is an essential first step to alleviate women's time poverty and health hazards. In 2021, during the Budget Speech, the Finance Minister announced that under the Jal Jeevan Mission (Urban) would ensure universal coverage of water supply through functional tap connections to households in all 4,378 statutory towns in line with SDG - 6. For this, JJM (U) would cover an estimated gap funding of 2.68 Crore.

Recently Puri became the first city in India to provide tap water to its residents 24X7 received national and global attention. Water is an essential daily need, and collecting it causes women to make trade-offs while making choices overtime allocation. Therefore, Puri's initiative to provide city-wide drink from tap quality water 24*7 will significantly reduce women's and girls' time burden and drudgery associated with collecting water. This initiative is likely to benefit a quarter million population and two crores tourists. It is a welcoming step as it would also reduce the burden of the care economy on women in the city and freeing their time to focus more on community and economic activities, thus bridging gender gaps and inequities.

Need new ladders for monitoring gender inequities to ensure No One is Left Behind

To achieve universal access and ensure the progressive realization of the human rights to water, gendered impact on the everyday lives of the urban poor needs is critical. In line with this, in 2018, the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene released a set of 'core' questions that need to be included in national household surveys to facilitate effective monitoring of the SDG targets related to WASH at the household levels. It suggests capturing data on time spent on water collection, gender-disaggregated data on the responsibility of water collection, the burden of water collection, addressing the explicit focus of SDG targets on the needs of women and girls. 

While the NITI Aayog undertakes the annual index exercise to rank states and UTs on 17 SDGs, it also misses key sub-indicators. While there is a sub-indicator under goal 5 of SDG emphasizing the need to reduce unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, but the progress on this target is not reported. It alludes to the absence of data collected by States and ULBs. This sub-indicator is a critical indicator to measure improvement in the quality of life of women and girl children from a gender transformative lens. However, it is often difficult to measure the qualitative aspects like improvement in women’s empowerment, change in access and control of resources by vulnerable groups and care work.

While development-sector initiatives and programmes are geared towards improving human development outcomes, the performance of these projects is measured in terms of physical and financial progress. Therefore, this warrants a shift in how progress, results and impacts of mega-project are evaluated based on the human development approach.

  • The Indian Government is committed to implementing the SDGs based on the nationally defined indicators responding to national priorities and needs. Equitable access, adequate quantity and quality of water provided to all sections of the population is required to meet the mandated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Quality drinking water is closely linked to human health, human development index and economy. Therefore, in line with the JMP, it is crucial for census and other household surveys to start incorporating the new criteria proposed by the JMP to classify service levels for the proper monitoring of SDG 6. Rather than focusing only on the existence of facilities, the quality of WASH services, care burden related to WASH services must also be determined. Capturing quality, reliable and disaggregated data is a prerequisite for evaluating the gains made against set targets for ensuring that "No One is Left Behind".
  • Infrastructural investments aim at achieving equitable outcomes. However, these outcomes need to be tracked so that inequities in accessing the benefits of these projects are evident. This requires a deliberative gender-responsive process. For this, a framework needs to be adopted to periodically monitor community-level impacts on access and control of water resources and promote women's leadership, increasing their employability leading to gender transformation. The benefits of such an approach could maximize returns to the investment in terms of poverty reduction or contribution to economic growth.
  • Equity metrics need to be integrated into all water management policies and implementation strategies at every stage of any reform process. In addition, these targets need to be fully integrated into the national, state and local level goals. For instance, water service delivery planning based on an equity-focused approach in monitoring water outcomes is critical. It exposes equity gaps and quantifies progress among disadvantaged groups allowing cities to cross-learn based on experience.
  • Cities need to undertake regular and timely participatory assessments on changes in status, empowerment and care burden of critical stakeholders due to improved water supply or sanitation systems. This assessment should engage communities, especially women and young girls, as part of the monitoring mechanisms. It could be done on a sample basis in urban poor settlements through citizen’s report cards, concurrent audits by engaging women as primary stakeholder groups. Other than the financial and physical progress that the city, in any case, captures, participatory assessments for tracking qualitative changes and impacts through third party monitoring and audits have remained central to urban missions in India, including AMRUT. 

This is crucial, particularly for achieving both SDG 5 and SDG 6. This approach would highlight policy gaps, identify hidden factor correlations, strengthen the accountability mechanisms for Government’s commitment to gender equality, and shift the goal post on human development. In principle and practice, there is a need to place "gender" at the centre of both international and national water and sanitation agenda.


Anju Dwivedi is a Senior Researcher and Tripti Singh is Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Research working in the project, Scaling City Institutions for India (SCI-FI): Sanitation.

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