© Tetyana Pryymak

By Elke Weesjes

Below-average monsoons in 2014 and 2015 have depleted groundwater levels in nearly half of India’s 29 states, impacting as many as 330 million people. Adding insult to injury, a record-breaking heat wave is currently gripping large parts of the country. But not everyone is impacted equally.

"Women are the most vulnerable during drought because it is their duty to fetch water and provide food for the family," Varsha Deshpande, a lawyer and women's rights activist in the hard-hit state of Maharashtra told Reuters. “She is the first to wake up, she walks the farthest to fetch water, she eats last—and probably the least, and she sleeps last. This takes a toll on her health, her menstrual cycle, and affects her reproductive cycle.”

Women in India are not an exception, throughout Asia and sub-Saharan Africa women and girls are predominantly responsible for finding and collecting water for their families and struggle with similar challenges as their Indian counterparts.

The ongoing drought in India has caused natural sources, such as streams and lakes, to dry up. Consequently women and young girls—who are often taken out of school to assist in the arduous water collection—have to walk further each day in the stifling heat to find alternative sources.

On average women in India’s drought prone areas walk more than 8,500 miles each year just to find enough water for their families and livestock, according to Indian scholar and environmental activist Vandana Shiva. She further estimated that this number translates into 150 million days of lost work or school.

Taking girls out of school to help collect water is one way to survive the water crisis. Polygamy is another. In India’s drought prone areas, men often marry so-called water wives, or 'paaniwaali bai.’ While the first wife cooks, cleans, and looks after the children, the paaniwaali bai are responsible for the household water supply—a full-time task during periods of extensive drought.

Unless you’re Muslim, polygamy is illegal in India. Still, the practice of marrying paaniwaali bai, who have few rights, is becoming more prevalent as the water crisis worsens. ¬

Technically, men and women in India have equal constitutional rights. In reality, however, women are marginalized and see their basic human rights violated on a daily basis. Socially, they are often regarded as lesser humans and face frightening levels of violence, discrimination, and sexual assault. The drought further exacerbates these deep-rooted problems, according to Deshpande.

"Abuses against women increase during drought—women forced to become prostitutes, men demanding more dowry to compensate for lower farm incomes, and more dowry deaths if the women cannot conceive because they are malnourished," Deshpande told Reuters.

Fortunately there are some initiatives committed to break the cycle of discrimination, empower women, and address India’s worsening water crisis.

One such initiative is Sarvajal (Water for All). Serving 300,000 people across 12 Indian states, the social enterprise has installed more than 180 solar-powered water dispensers in water-scarce communities since it was founded in 2008. These so-called water ATMs provide clean and affordable drinking water in a central location—meaning women don’t have to walk so far to collect it and girls can stay in school.

Another hopeful initiative, Establishing Women’s First Right to Water Resources, kicked off in 2011. The goal of this European Union-funded project was to reduce vulnerability by having women participate in community water management in the Bundelkhand districts of Lalitpur, Jalaun, and Hamirpur, where women spend an average of three to nine hours each day fetching water.

The project has funded several smaller local initiatives, including Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan, a local organization that fights for water and sanitation rights for women. Thus far, the organization has helped form and strengthen 96 informal water committees called Paani Panchayats.

These committees consist of 1,681 women and 180 men who address water-related issues in their communities and have appointed 500 Jal Sahelis (female water friends) in seven districts in Bundelkhand. These women are actively involved in their community’s decision-making process regarding water issues, such as pump installations, dam constructions, and irrigation.

Sirkoo, a Jal Saheli from Udguan village in Bundelkhand, has been involved in her local Paani Panchayat since its foundation, three years ago. The experience has been empowering, she said.

“Rainfall had decreased, there was always a problem of clean water,” she said in a documentary produced by the website India Water Portal. “So, water became our priority. Earlier we did not know anything beyond the four walls of our homes, and now we travel, meet, and talk to people on water.”

In a culture where women are scolded for speaking to men outside of their family, the Jal Saheli’s efforts to talk about water was not surprisingly met with resistance. But thanks to their perseverance and their achievements, reports India Water Portal, the situation has changed. Men are now willing to listen to Jal Saheli’s who, throughout the Bundelkhand region, have organized the construction of check dams. These small dams enable village wells to recharge, thus providing water for people, crops, and livestock.

The impact of their efforts goes much further than just water. In addition to being empowered to make changes to a situation that deeply affects them, women and girls have been able to regain some of what they lost to the labor of drought.

“We have not had any education,” she said. “When [Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan] brought us together, we formed a group, then change happened. We learned things, got to know other women, got talking, working together. In our village, we would not be able to send our girls to school as they would have to queue for fetching water. After we started working on water, we send our girls to school on time.”