Water and Women's Empowerment*

By Sichendra Bista

*This theme paper was presented in the National Workshop on Water and Women's Empowerment organized on November 20, 1998 Friday in Kathmandu, Nepal. Bista is an environmental scientist, commandeering Safe Water for the Poor global movement. The paper was commented by noted interdisciplinary analyst Dipak Gyawali in a technical session chaired by Prof. Binayak Bhadra


The index of human civilization is determined by the access to safe water. Most importantly, safe water is the very entry point not only to public health improvements but to the women's empowerment also as evident from the case studies drawn from the Safe Water for the Poor movement under the aegis of Global Initiatives for Sustainable Development and Humanitarian Action.


I come to you as a child to his mother.
I come as an orphan to you, moist with love.
I come without refuge to you, giver of sacred rest
I come a fallen man to you, uplifter of all.
I come undone by disease to you, the perfect physician.
I come, my heart dry with thirst, to you, ocean of sweet wine.
Do with me whatever you will.

Water has a female face, and is a female as reflected in the love poem above by 17th century Sanskrit poet Jagannatha in Ganga Lahiri (the Waves of the Ganges). Hindu mythology tells that it was her magic, mystic and irresistible power which made the supreme God of Shiva obliged to refuge her on his head.

In typical Newari culture in Kathmandu valley, the handing over a bride to her groom during the marriage is performed by giving away a bowl of water, and hence called La Lhayegu (the transfer of water).

I read an article by Dr. Mayling Simpson-Herbert few years ago in which she recalled that in rural Botswana, when the groom's relative arrive to fetch the bride at the end of the festive day-long celebration, they come to ask for water.

The cultural realities are poetic and symbolic expressions of women's association with water and, considering them water bearers as soon as she is capable of carrying a bucket.

Women's Involvement in Water Management

Realizing the inseparable bond between water and women, the Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development as well as Agenda 21 underline that “women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water.”

How much women in the developing countries are involved in operation and management of water as independently as possible? Are they authorized by the patriarchal societies in the South? If no or negligible, what are the constraints that hold them not to discharge what they ought to do towards water management which is associated with their daily life?

Bitter Realities

Before finding out the answers to the above questions, let me draw your attention to bitter realities.

According to official claim only 7.01 m people has access to “safe” (piped) water out of the total population of Nepal (21.12 m). By the year 2010, the number of Nepali citizens without access to piped water would grow from 14.11 m to 22 m.

It seems ironical to see such thin figures of water supply coverage against the Nepal Government's commitment while responding to the International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade (1980-90) that “HMG's water supply objective for the year 2000 is 100 percent coverage for the urban and 90 percent for the rural population.”

In South Asian nations too, the current number of people without safe water supply would swell by more than two times from 350 m now to 769 m in 2010! It is true in other developing countries around the world.

Although the official statistics claims that 38 per cent of the Nepal's population have access to piped water, but the water supplied even in her capital is not free from microbial, physical nor chemical contamination in lack of proper disinfection and regular maintenance!

Women's Empowerment through Water : SWFP Experience

Safe Water for the Poor is a conscious, collective and organized movement to bring about a change in people's lives in every possible way. The movement has already helped some 300,000 people ensure safe water themselves in a short span of time (15 months) without any outside help. How does the SWFP bring about a change in Women's lives?


Equity and supply of safe drinking water is the primary index of human civilization. But, basic rights of some 3.5 million people in Nepal are violated as they have been suffering from social expulsion as “untouchables”, and the basic parameter of such inhuman hierarchy is none other than drinking water.

The most vulnerable are the women in the so-called “untouchable” communities who have to be sometimes defamed and manhandled by the upper caste people like the Viswokarma community in Kavre and Chamar in Mahottari districts.

To overcome the situation, Global Initiatives has chosen safe drinking water as a priority to harmonize the social stratas for bringing about a social change and equality through domestic disinfection.


Women in the developing countries have a very little time to spare for themselves as if they do not have any personal life and interests. According to a study, women in the conservative societies of Third World countries are more socially and economically active than their male counterparts, but enjoy no freedom.

It is the female members who have to look after the household chores (from collecting water in the early morning to arranging beds in the late night), groom kids, take care of the sick and elderly members of the family and so on. In the rural areas, women have to wake up early and set for the back-breaking journey to collect water. The situation is also same in the urban areas of Nepal (particularly in Kathmandu) where the piped water supply is not only safe, but also not adequate. Therefore, female members have to wake up early morning and collect water using hand-held pumps for several hours!

How could we imagine empowerment of our female members in such a situation? Only by allowing our females members some time to use for themselves.


One of the beneficiary of SWFP wrote from Kalaiya, Bara : “During my trip to Kathmandu, I encountered some activists of SWFP and received PAP Chlorine (now renamed Chlorex 1) Solution for a year. It is working perfect and cheap. It helps save water because my wife does not waste medicated water. This saved her time to collect water. Recently, she joined literacy class.”


SWFP observed that the female member of the participating families in the movement are getting multiplicity of benefits. It is found that the food consumption of the families has almost halved (take note waterborne parasites in human body consumes some 40 percent of the food (s)he consumes). This means women save 40 percent of the time they spend in kitchen, cooking food.


Also, it is observed that the household water use has decreased by some 60 percent because chlorinated water has been very carefully handled by families under the SWFP movement as there involves some money (SWFP a. k. a. One Rupee Revolution is not a give-away program). Meaning, water bearers or women save some 60 percent of their time for collection of water.

Take note that some 9.40m hours everyday is spent on collecting water in among the populace of 14.11 m who has no access to piped water supply, considering it takes 3 (average of 2-4 hours spent for household water collection) hours every day to collect water for each 6-member family.


Plus they also are saving enough time which otherwise would have been spent on boiling for disinfection of water. Although negligible families are boiling water properly for some 22-30 minutes after boiling point, but each family in Nepal is spending 54 days of a female member of the family just to boil water in a year. In this way, if 1.18m families (considering 6 member family) accessed with piped water supply start boiling water, then the manhour totaling 63.09m days would be wasted each year only on boiling.


It is also true that safe water is synonymous with pink health in the family. And the waterborne diseases mostly affect sick, elderly and kids. A female member with sick people in family would have very less time for herself as she has to devote to nurse them. But, SWFP movement found, that in some cases the waterborne diseases were no more prevalent in some of the schools (e.g. Kumudini High School) which has been participating in the movement, saving their precious time and resources.

Reluctant Attitude

Even though, safe drinking water is the entry point to women's empowerment, the government and even the feminist organizations appears to have reluctant attitude towards the issue as evident from the decreasing investment in the drinking water sector.

According to the Nepal Human Development Report 1998, the Per Capita Budget Allocation to drinking water sector has decreased to Rs. 33.50 in 1996/97 from Rs. 51.97 in 1992/93. The amount allocated in 1996/97 is equivalent to Rs. 24.49 at the 1992/93 price.

Likewise, the Public Expenditure Ratio (PE/GNP) to the sector for the same period has decreased from 3.6 in 1992/93 to 2.5 in 1996/97.

The Human Allocation Ratio (HDP/GDP) for the drinking water sector has also halved from 0.6 in 1992/93 to 0.3 in 1996/97.

Piped Water Supply : No Guarantee of Safe Drinking Water

Under the SWFP movement, Global Initiatives for Sustainable Development and Humanitarian Action (GI) has chosen safe drinking water as a priority for social change (in South Asia initially) because the subcontinent hosts more than one fifth of the global population and one third of the world's poors.

Access to safe drinking water is primary human right in this part of the globe which could only be achieved by encouraging as categorically pointed out by Minister of Maldives and former Secretary-General of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Ibrahim Hussain Zaki and a GI Trustee, “In the developed world, the basic human rights represents violence, but in South Asia and developing segment of the globe the basic human right is fundamental to survival.”

As far as this Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal is concerned, one fourth of her 75 districts has no other form of modern links of communications including motorable roads. It takes some 13 days' trek to reach some of the remote areas. In such a context, how could we imagine access to piped water?

On the other hand, the cost of piped water supply is, if not astronomical, but certainly exhaustive as World Bank assumed that unit cost to make each person accessed with piped water comes around US$130. This means Nepal requires US$ 1834.3 m currently and some US$2860m by the year 2010 to make all its citizens get privilege to drink piped water. Against this estimate, SWFP a.k.a. One Rupee Revolution is enabling people to ensure safe water to a 6-member family with as little investment as US$7 (seven only) a year!

Also, without proper treatment and regular maintenance of water supply systems in the urban sectors of the country, how could Nepali citizens expect safe water supply even if the entire state-nation is networked with piped water supply system as the state could never guarantee since the first piped water system was set up some 110 years back in 1888?

This is true also in the rest of the developing world where more than 1.2 billion people are obliged to drink water, fouled with human and animal waste, and more than 3 billion people have no sanitation facilities. Drinking water contamination claims a person every 3 seconds or more than 25,000 lives everyday which is more than 3 times higher than the HIV infection rate!

Enclosed article by B. S. Bahadur throws more light on how their dreams were shattered when the villagers of Dharke, Dhading were instigated by some so-called “development” agencies.


As the safe drinking water is directly associated with day-to-day life of every woman, it is inevitable to immediately channel our energy and resources towards enabling women to ensure safe water themselves.

The mission, even in acute shortage of resources needed for infrastructure development of piped network, could be achieved, in an interim basis, through encouraging demand-driven domestic disinfection along the participatory path traced by the SWFP if we are really serious about women's empowerment.


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  3. Dennison Berwich, A Walk Along the Ganges, Sterling Publishing Co.
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  18. Sichendra Bista, Drinking water stands for social Equality, Crosslines, March 23, 1998
  19. Sichendra Bista, Khanepani Pradushan: Karan Ek, Samasya Anek, Gorkhapatra, Mansir 14, 2054 BS
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