Historically, water is a gendered burden, with women being the primary caregivers responsible for cooking, washing and cleaning chores in the house and in modern times in institutions (teachers, anganwadi and healthcare workers). Women have traditionally been associated with various water related tasks - be it collecting, fetching, or purifying water.
While the care economy has always burdened women, is there a way to empower them in terms of providing leadership spaces in the water sector? Probably yes, in decision making, planning and monitoring roles, particularly around water security. The challenge will, however, be to ensure that it does not add to their woes but empowers and rewards them.
The concept of potable drinking water is as old as ancient civilizations that clustered around the water resources. These settlements also practiced some type of purification to filter out impurities in water. Water treatment documentation, therefore, dates back to over 4000 years, when most civilizations simply boiled and strained their water to eliminate unwanted substances.
Around 500 B.C., the first known domestic filter appeared when the Greek scientist Hippocrates invented the so-called Hippocratic sleeve, which consisted of a simple cloth back filter (EPA, 2000). Later on in 1827, John Doulton and his son Henry invented the ceramic water filter to remove bacteria from drinking water (Water Filter Australia). In London, at that time, drinking water from the Thames was contaminated with raw sewage, and epidemics of cholera and typhoid were common.
So, though the larger water treatment systems around the world were developed by men, water filtration, as a process has always been women oriented. Women today are not just users of existing technologies but are contributing to innovations as well.
Why is water sampling and testing critical?
Worldwide, over 80 percent of all wastewater returns to the environment without being treated (WWAP, 2017). It primarily enters various water bodies including ponds, lakes, rivers, aquifers and groundwater and contaminates them. Contaminated water can transmit diseases such diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio. India itself loses 200 million person days and Rs. 36,600 crore every year due to water-related diseases (UNRCO, 2018).
Apart from bacteriological contamination of water bodies, groundwater in around 20 states across India is found to be contaminated with excess arsenic levels and in 23 states with excess fluoride levels (CGWB 2018). While over the years, various national and state level schemes have been functioning to provide potable water supply in quality-affected habitations, their coverage has been as low. Presently, 54 percent of the rural population has access to potable drinking water, both through household and stand post connections (IMIS Ministry of Jal Shakti, 2020).
In order to institutionalize water quality monitoring and surveillance systems, the government has prioritised water quality testing and surveillance in Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), its flagship programme on providing piped water supply to all rural households by 2024. Further, the JJM guidelines make a clear distinction between water quality monitoring and water quality surveillance. Monitoring involves testing of water samples collected from water sources by concerned departments in test laboratories, while surveillance is undertaken by gram panchayats or rural community using field test kits (FTKs) and sanitary inspection.
For surveillance, every gram panchayat and/ or its sub-committee, i.e. Village Water and Sanitation Committee (VWSC)/ Paani Samiti/ and User Group, is to identify and train five women from local community to conduct water quality tests using FTKs/ bacteriological vials and report the results.
Therefore, testing quality of various water sources will now become the lead responsibility of women exclusively. However, this should not limit their role simply as facilitators but should empower them as water leaders too.
Women community members being trained in water quality monitoring and surveillance is not new to JJM but goes to the National Rural Drinking Water Quality Monitoring and Surveillance Programme (NRDWQM&SP), 2006 where water quality monitoring was mandated through Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers (MoRD, 2006). Water quality testing has also been institutionalised in Chhattisgarh’s Mitanin Programme where community health workers have been instrumental in identifying and ensuring government action on water quality related issues based on periodic test results.
A similar approach is currently being adopted under Mission Bhagiratha, a mega drinking water supply project in Telangana, where the authorities will train around two-three women in each village in testing water quality (TNN, 2018). These women may include government school teachers, ASHA and Anganwadi employees among others. As Mission Bhagiratha is in its nascent stage now with community mobilization processes just taking up, the success of women’s role in water testing is yet to be ascertained in the state. It is important here to also consider the value of time that women are providing and compensate them sufficiently.
While the success of women’s engagement in water quality monitoring and surveillance in government programmes is limited and lesser known, WaterAid India has had few successful experiences from across the country in training women on water quality testing and supporting them with water testing toolkits in locations with high levels of fluoride, arsenic and bacterial contaminations in water. The experience is that women are able to do a better quality job given they have adequate training and support system.
Experiences worth sharing are from Nuapada (Odisha), Kanker (Chhattisgarh) and Hyderabad (Telangana). In Kanker, a fluoride-affected area, village-volunteers have been trained since 2018 on various aspects of WASH including water quality testing. In this process, 360 active female Self Help Group (SHG) members of National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), 85 Community Resource Persons (CRPs) and 168 National Service Scheme (NSS) volunteers have been trained on use of FTKs. The active SHG members and some CRPs carry out testing of all drinking water sources in three fluoride contamination affected blocks (Kanker, Charama and Narharpur).
Another successful case is of the Jala Bandhu model, a community-based cadre trained on water quality monitoring in Nuapada district of Odisha directly involving 24 gram panchayats and targeting 1642 water sources. This fluoride affected belt of rural Nuapada has been conducting water quality tests since 2015 through frontline workers in the government system such as Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), Swacchata Doots, Anganwadi Workers, village motivators and Self-Employed Mechanics (SEMs) along with active participation of communities. These frontline workers are trained in using the FTKs. Test results are shared with concerned communities through public hearings and with government departments.
Besides, rural geographies, WaterAid has also intervened in urban slums of Hyderabad through a group called, Basthi Vikas Manch on WASH needs of the slum dwellers. Since 2019, a total of 157 women have been trained in 21 slums of Hyderabad on water quality testing with the use of FTKs. Unlike in the past, access to clean drinking water has helped them combat health challenges that are unique to slums.
Though a community based and women centric approach for water quality monitoring and surveillance is a good way to involve local community in understanding their water needs and quality, very often the leadership role of women in this process is not well conceptualised and designed. It is important that JJM is able to recognise this and act on it so that space for women is not limited to implementers but they become planners too.
Another challenge is around the inadequate infrastructure and supply side measures available in the country for ensuring the quality of drinking water. Efforts at local level should be accompanied by upgrading district and sub-district water quality testing labs, supply of FTKs at regular intervals, processes for recognition of FTK based test results, and adopting appropriate mitigation measures wherever contamination has been detected. Without these measures, putting women responsible for water quality would not lead to their motivation and sustained engagement.
Moreover, water quality tests by women should be preceded by understanding the training needs of women and standardising the process of training at scale and the actual implementation of such trainings. This should also be supported by institutional measures for deploying regular review and management system at different levels led by women leaders to provide ongoing guidance and troubleshooting support for processes at community level.
JJM, being flagship scheme of the government of India, provides a great opportunity to empower and employ women across villages to lead on the water front. It can be a major platform for women to participate at all levels of planning, implementation, management, operation and maintenance, of in-village water supply systems.