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April 02, 2014

Water Scarcity and Reproductive Health

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Students drilling a well at the Water4 training. Photo courtesy of Christelle Kwizera.

Christelle KwizeraEditor’s note: Christelle Kwizera is a fellow with the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program. Christelle is also part of Water Access Rwanda and will be drilling wells this summer and next in Rwanda, where some families lack access to clean water. She recently participated in a Water4 training that taught student activists about groundwater pollution and how to avoid contaminating drinking water sources. The students spent four days drilling a water well using tools that combine hand augers and percussion tools. Manually drilling is minimally intrusive and offers protection from water contamination by backfilling with sanitary layers around the well. In this blog post, Christelle reflects on some of the ways water scarcity affects reproductive health.

Water is an essential part of life. It makes up as much as three quarters of our body weight when we’re born, and more than 60 percent in adult life. We cry for it when we’re thirsty. It’s essential to the growth of crops. It's the universal solvent, a cooking necessity, and central to adequate sanitation.

However, in many parts of the world, it is rare to find clean water that is easy to access. Rather, it is often contaminated with harmful substances and bacteria, and pure streams are located below the earth’s surface, protected by layers of stone and clay.

Thus, it is not at all surprising that the average African woman spends six hours each day fetching and cleaning water. Despite the hard work and time spent collecting water, one in nine people still lack access to clean water, and every 20 seconds a child dies from a water-related illness.

In Rwanda and in most of the developing world, the task of gathering and sanitizing water is left to women and children. The scarcity of water promulgates the cycle of poverty and illiteracy, and it exposes women and children to dangerous situations outside of the home. This is unfortunate and heartbreaking when you realize that water scarcity in sub-Saharan Africa is not physical but economic. There is a tremendous amount of water in the valleys, lakes, and rivers, and even more below the surface; however, many women and children lack the knowledge and tools to make that water usable, potable, and accessible.

Furthermore, water scarcity has tremendous direct and indirect influence on reproductive health in both
men and women. Here are several reasons why access to clean water is crucial for the future of Africa:

1. Dangerous toxins in contaminated water can lead to infertility and other reproductive health

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Students from Water Access Rwanda. Photo courtesy of Christelle Kwizera.


2. The more time women spend acquiring and sanitizing water means less time that could be devoted to an economically empowering activity. The economic independence of women is a significant factor in a woman’s knowledge of her own reproductive health and in feeling powerful over reproductive health-related choices. These choices, such as when to have children and how many to have, are crucial to creating a safe, healthy environment for women.

3. Girls are often discouraged or forbidden to go to school as this takes time away from household chores—chores that are made greater by the lack of clean water. Often, the more schooling a girl has, the more delayed her first pregnancy; the current environment forces girls to have less schooling and thus earlier and more frequent pregnancies. Education is the single greatest factor determining a woman's eventual family size.

4. Most children in rural areas without access to clean water are required to wake up early each morning to fetch water before heading for school. These distances, more often than not, are extremely far away from the child’s home. Extended absences and common lateness can lead students to not be fully involved in the classroom. Education is a huge factor in reproductive health and in economic success. The more educated both men and women are, the more informed their decisions on having children and in keeping a healthy reproductive life.

5. Girls who have reached puberty and are having their menstrual period experience an even bigger limitation in attending school. Most rural families cannot afford cotton sanitary pads and thus use folded fabrics. These fabrics require continual washing to keep them clean and reusable; however, the lack of water creates problems of hygiene, and many times the girls cannot attend school during their period. There is currently no infrastructure to help with washing the pads. In some cases, girls have been sent home from school because of a lack of hygiene during their menstrual cycle.

6. Infant mortality, often a result of water-borne diseases, perpetuates the practice of having “insurance children.” “Insurance children” are born when a woman wants to have as many children as she can because she is not certain how many will survive until adulthood.

7. The lack of water perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Without consistent access to clean water, families are unable to provide basic needs, and in turn, it is hard for them to access medical care, family planning commodities, and protection from sexually transmitted infections.

8. Sexual assailants prey on women as they travel to fetch water. The water source is often very remote, and water is sometimes needed at dusk or in the evening. These women are often attacked without witness or advocate, and their attackers are rarely charged.

Some solutions to the water crisis are currently available, but most are very expensive and require outside sponsorship to provide wells to the communities that need them. Some new, cost-effective solutions that build sustainable water sources are becoming more popular but still require plenty of labor and funding to help get them up and running.

Water plays a major role in the overall well-being of families, and it is my hope that the task of giving clean water can be taken on by more individuals.

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