How many wives does it take to fetch water?

(Note: First published here.)

How many wives does it take to fetch water? If you are from the village of Denganmal in the Indian state of Maharashtra then your answer might be two, or even three! Most men in this drought-stricken village practice polygamy of a surprising kind – they marry ‘extra’ wives solely for them to fetch water for the household, many times a day. This practice was recently highlighted in an article in Open, a weekly online current affairs and features magazine of India.

Across the world, where access to water is poor it is often women who are saddled with the responsibility of collecting water. Women and girls are estimated to spend 200 million hours every single day fetching water. In addition to taking valuable time, carrying heavy loads of water over long distances several times a day leads to many health issues, most commonly neck and spinal injuries. The ‘water wives’ of Denganmal take on this hardship as part of their duties to their husband’s family.

Although the village says these marriages are a social good, giving homes to the second and third wives who are usually widows or have been abandoned by their husbands, these women do not have the same rights as the ‘legitimate’ first and most senior wife. The junior wives do not have conjugal rights, nor are they eligible to inherit their husband’s property after his death. Their sole role in the household is to fetch water from a distant source. For this, they are given food, shelter and the semi-respectability of being married. This arrangement is an example of communities finding ways to adapt to extreme difficulties, and a stark reminder of how much work is still needed to ensure gender-equal, easy access to safe drinking water in India, especially in rural areas.

Access inequality

Denganmal is about 150km from Mumbai, India’s financial powerhouse. Although a drinking water pipeline carries water all the way to the city from a dam on a river near Denganmal, the villagers do not receive a piped water supply. This asymmetric access to essential services is representative of India’s skewed development story, in which only a fortunate few, mostly in urban areas, can conveniently access clean water in a safe and sustainable way.

Although the Indian government and UNDP state that the country is on-track to achieve the MDG target for sustainable access to safe drinking water, the reality on the ground tells a different story. The World Bank estimates that 21% of communicable diseases in India are related to unsafe water, and that diarrhoea causes more than 1,600 deaths every day.

Even in areas where piped water is supplied most households who can afford to do not drink it directly from the tap. The water is always filtered, usually through expensive and water use-intensive reverse osmosis filters, before it is considered safe for drinking. But again, such treatment varies widely across India. The 69th round of The National Sample Survey of India in 2012 found that only 1.7% of households in rural areas of Uttar Pradesh, 2.2% in Bihar and 6.6% in rural Haryana treat drinking water by boiling, filtering or use of chemicals and electrifiers.

India’s safe water situation was brought into sharp focus for me recently when I visited one of WaterAid India’s project sites in Delhi. Safeda Basti is a slum in East Delhi in which WaterAid India, through its partner CURE India (Center for Urban and Regional Excellence, India), is supporting construction of household toilets and sustainable sewage disposal systems. There I met Pushpa, an inspiring lady who brought up her three children single-handedly after her husband left her many years ago. She told me that when there was no piped water supply in the slum she and other women had to walk long distances every day to get water, or depend on visits from water tankers around which fights would erupt. Now, the slum has a piped water supply from the municipality; but, being the last point on the pipeline in that area, Pushpa and other residents of the slum still have an erratic supply and often even foul-smelling water.

Making women part of the solution

The problems that Pushpa and the women of Denganmal face might be on different levels, but ultimately they come down to a problem of access – access to a safe and sustainable source of piped water that is available on premises. According to JMP data from 2014, this covers only 14% of rural households in India in 2012 compared with 51% of urban households.
There is hope, though. WaterAid’s work shows that when women are involved in decision making on water and sanitation their lives change for the better. We empower women to take on leadership roles in community decision-making bodies, make them aware of the services they are entitled to, involve them when decisions are made on constructing facilities, and, if they are in a leadership role, sensitise them about the importance of taking an integrated approach to WASH. Through this involvement they gain confidence, can suggest practical solutions based on their experience, find more time for education and livelihood opportunities and, ultimately, positively influence their communities.

Until women are involved, the water wives of Denganmal and other women in India and elsewhere will continue to shoulder the terrible unequal burden of ensuring water availability for their families every day, and go on suffering the economic, health and cultural consequences.