Women and girls across the world collectively spend about 200 million hours every day collecting water which is a “colossal waste” of their valuable time, the UN children’s agency has said of the activity which is a daily routine for millions of girls in India.
As World Water week began on Monday, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) highlighted the opportunity cost from a lack of access to water disproportionately falls on women and girls who collectively spend as much as 200 million hours – or more than 22,800 years – every day collecting this vital resource.
“Just imagine: 200 million hours is 8.3 million days, or over 22,800 years,” Unicef’s global head of water, sanitation and hygiene Sanjay Wijesekera said.
“It would be as if a woman started with her empty bucket in the Stone Age and didn’t arrive home with water until 2016. Think how much the world has advanced in that time. Think how much women could have achieved in that time,” he said.
“When water is not on premises and needs to be collected, it’s our women and girls who are mostly paying with their time and lost opportunities,” he added.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal for water and sanitation calls for universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water by 2030.
Unicef said in this regard, the first step is providing everyone with a basic service within a 30-minute round trip, and the long term goal is to ensure everyone has safe water available at home.
However, UN estimates are that in sub-Saharan Africa for 29 per cent of the population, improved drinking water sources are 30 minutes or more away.
In Asia, the numbers are 21 minutes in rural areas and 19 minutes in urban areas.
Unicef added that when water is not piped to the home, the burden of fetching it falls disproportionately on women and children, especially girls.
A study of 24 sub-Saharan countries found that when the collection time is more than 30 minutes, an estimated 3.36 million children and 13.54 million adult females were responsible for water collection.
In Malawi, the UN estimates that women who collected water spent 54 minutes on average, while men spent only 6 minutes.
The UN agency noted that for women, the opportunity costs of collecting water are high, with far reaching effects.
“It considerably shortens the time they have available to “It considerably shortens the time they have available to spend with their families, on child care, other household tasks, or even in leisure activities. For both boys and girls, water collection can take time away from their education and sometimes even prevent their attending school altogether,” Unicef said.
When water is not available at home, even if it is collected from a safe source, the fact that it has to be transported and stored increases the risk that it is faecally contaminated by the time it is drunk, it said.
This in turn increases the risk of diarrhoeal disease, which is the fourth leading cause of death among children under five and a leading cause of chronic malnutrition, or stunting, which affects 159 million children worldwide.
More than 300,000 children under 5 die annually from diarrhoeal diseases due to poor sanitation, poor hygiene, or unsafe drinking water – over 800 per day.
“No matter where you look, access to clean drinking water makes a difference in the lives of people,” said Wijesekera.
“The needs are clear; the goals are clear. Women and children should not have to spend so much of their time for this basic human right.”