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Water, water everywhere; and not a drop to drink: Building equitable access to water.
Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Water, water everywhere; and not a drop to drink: Building equitable access to water.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have brought the importance of access to safe and clean water back into focus within the development narrative. SDG 6 aims to achieve universal and equitable access to safe drinking water for all by 2030. Regions in the south, Africa included, are lagging behind current international standards on water access (UNDESA, 2014), this is also applicable to vulnerable groups living within communities in these regions which include women, the youth and the disabled.

Inequitable water access starts with lack of infrastructure for these vulnerable groups. Barriers to accessing existing infrastructure are experienced by many groups:

·       Disabled people might require modifications to be able to use regular structures such as taps, standpipes, pumps and wells. A clear case is a community tap that is accessed by a few steps inaccessible to those in wheelchairs.  Those with limited physical capacity would not be able to open the tap (Norman, 2010). This inaccessibility translates into an additional expense for disabled persons because the option available to get water is to pay someone for water collection or purchase water from retailers.

·       This scarceness of infrastructure means that water collection is a time-consuming process. Women, as the primary users of domestic water and homemakers, bear the brunt of this responsibility (UN Water, 2015). The significant time spent collecting water detracts from other activities that could generate income for households. Girl children also lose vital hours most of which are taken from their schooling time, negatively and disproportionately impacting girls (Shihadul, 2015).

·       The high prevalence of disease, conflict and ineffective foster systems have led to many Youth-Headed Households (YHH) in the global south. YHH often lack the economic resources to buy assets that will aid with water collection like wheelbarrows and larger containers.  Their youth, lack of experience also impact on their ability to find work and therefore to access loan facilities to purchase these items.  (Kisiyombe). 

·       In school youth, face other barriers to water access. There are cases where schools do not have enough water points, or any at all, as well as water points being reserved exclusively for teachers. This lack of access to water and sanitation facilities leads to high spreads of diarrhoeal infections in schools (Voss Foundation)

Vulnerable social groups also face water access barriers as a result of social prejudices.

·       In community initiatives, the youth are excluded from decision-making processes because of cultural approaches to age, where young people are not considered full members of the community and their opinion is not taken into account. Women also face this exclusion from decision-making, where it has been found that decisions on community water access are advised by men who do not have water collection experience (Leder & Clement, 2017). Another social barrier that arises from gender roles is experienced by disabled women whom, despite their disability, are expected to collect water for the household as homemakers regardless of having able-bodied males within the household.

·       Moreover, there is social exclusion by class of women and children from water access points. It has been found that women and children of lower social castes are not allowed to touch certain streams and in the case of taps, those in lower classes may only collect water after the higher castes (Barua, 2016).

The issue of water access affects other areas as well, especially safety. The long distances that people travel to collect water often lead them through isolated areas that leave opportunity for attack. The linkage between sanitation and water means that outside water collection, people have to travel long distances for latrine use or to use isolated unsafe areas for this purpose (WaterAid). Carrying the weight of water over these long distances has been associated with strain in necks and backs, and early labour and miscarriages for women (Gereer, 2010).

Many water infrastructure projects work well in the provision of water infrastructure to communities but failed to take into account social access to this water infrastructure. The nature of water access means that it is a social as well as an infrastructural issue and the solutions that are formulated need to account for this.  Water access projects need to take social inclusion and empowerment initiatives into account and consult with, education and labour sectors so that the goals that have been set by SDG 6 are met for vulnerable groups.

A project we are currently working with is seeking to overcome these and other challenges around water access in southern Africa.  


Further Reading

Barua, A. 2016. Overcoming social barriers: A journey by women WASH platform

Geere, J., Hunter, P., & Jagals, P. (2010). Domestic water carrying and its implications for health: a review and mixed methods pilot study in Limpopo Province, South Africa

Leder, S. and Clement, F. 2017. Why access to water may not benefit all women equally.

Norman, R. 2010. Water, sanitation and disability in West Africa: A summary report of the Mali water and disability study. Available:

Shahidul, S.M, and Zehadul Karim, A., H. (2015). Factors Contributing to School Dropout among the Girls: A Review of Literature. European Journal of Research and Reflection in Educational Sciences: 3(2).

United Nations Water. 2015. Eliminating discrimination and inequalities in access to water and sanitation

WaterAid. Gender Equality and Disability Inclusion within water, sanitation and hygiene. Avalable:

Voss Foundation. 2014. Water and Education.