“Water, water everywhere, /Nor any drop to drink.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner).
According to the UN, by 2050, India is projected to add 416 million urban residents to its already mammoth population. The UN also reports that the demand for water supply in India will be doubled from what it is today by 2030. As difficult as it might be for us to fathom, as we immerse ourselves in technology and knowingly and unknowingly contribute to the destruction of natural resources around us, the water crisis is real and all set to explode in the course of a few years.
In 2019, Chennai, one of the leading metropolises in the country, witnessed an acute shortage of water supply, with reports revealing that the country’s reservoirs had been drained completely. Lack of freshwater affected nearly 500 million people across the country in the past year with the brunt of the escalating crisis falling on women, especially in the rural and rural-urban areas.
From time immemorial, society had seen a sharp division of labour when it came to performing certain roles and duties. Even at the time of hunter-gatherers—the simplest form of society—women were tasked with collecting water and gathering fruits and raw vegetables from the forest. The men would hunt while the women gathered, and make no mistake; the men’s job was considered more crucial to existence. Today, millions of years later, the women still perform the same roles, the only difference being that the tasks they perform have become indispensable to survival while the men remain blissfully unaware.
One common sight in every village in India made popular even through mainstream media and films, is that of women of all ages queuing up to collect water from the tube well, carrying huge, colourful tumblers and buckets to and from home. In other places, they would draw water from the wells and ponds making several trips back and forth. Be it the sweltering heat of an oppressive summer, the cold mornings during the winter or the dirt and muck of the monsoon; these women are seen fetching water for the family throughout the year.
While the collection of water remains a largely female responsibility, and god knows that the dry taps and barren water bodies are a daily struggle for these women. In rural-urban areas, while the supply of water might be marginally better (the keyword being marginal), the fact remains that the water crisis is as personal to women in the country as it is political at an international scale.
The woman, whether urban or rural, educated or uneducated, continue to be inextricably connected with running the family in the domestic domain. Thus, the performance of household chores, cooking, washing of clothes and utensils remain an integral part of the everyday life of most women in the country. And without water, life can only be so smooth.
Another reason why women are worst-affected by the steadily progressing water crisis is the maintenance of menstrual hygiene. In India, around 36% of the women have access to sanitary napkins, and the rest are subjected to despicable sanitary standards (reports suggest that approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases are caused due to poor menstrual hygiene) using anything from cloth, sand, ashes and soil while on their period. Given this situation, the lack of water, more precisely clean water, can and do pose any amount of health risks, some of them fatal.
From chronic reproductive tract infections to major diseases that could cause permanent damage to the reproductive system, the gynaecological and reproductive health of women is threatened, affecting their child-bearing capacity, causing infertility, miscarriages and mortality. The extreme lack of sanitation and menstrual hygiene is thus already a huge socio-economic issue, layered with ignorance, poor education and the inherent gender politics in every home in India. On top of this, the complete dearth of water that is fast affecting the country now is a sign for menstruating women that disaster is waiting to strike.
Unsafe, polluted water leading to innumerable water-borne diseases has been a major concern for decades in the country. In 2017, 69.14 million cases of water-borne disease were reported in India; water is for everybody, and it is only because of the existing norms in society, and the female physiology, that it becomes a woman’s problem first and then the man’s (a fact that often takes a backseat within the bigger picture).
The irony is that despite the devastating floods occurring across states on a regular basis, (read: the recent floods ravaging Bihar, the deluge in Assam, the annual flood situation in Maharashtra, the disastrous 2018 Kerala floods, the floods in Tamil Nadu that brought the state to a standstill in 2015 etc.), the parched lands, the dry wells and tanks, the persistently unsustainable use and consumption of water, to say nothing of inefficient water management and irrigation techniques, is setting up the mise-en-scene for a crisis that might soon turn the country into a withered tableau of death and destruction.
Note: Without reducing carbon emissions, the future looks dry for India. If global temperatures continue to rise, rainfall patterns will only become extremely unpredictable, causing an increase in floods and droughts, adding to the misery of water shortage. As more and more of our population is pushed to live in water-stressed areas, we must demand for ways to curb GHGs emissions.