by Aditi Kapoor
(New Delhi, India, September 2003) Fetching and carrying water is women’s work in rural India. In the villages of the desert district of Banaskantha, women spend up to six hours a day bringing water from distant sources to their homes. They carry up to 15 liters on their heads on each trip, often walking barefoot.
Banaskantha, which is in the country’s western state of Gujarat, receives less than 7 inches of rainfall each year. The water table has dropped by 6.5 feet a year, as withdrawals exceed natural replenishment. Over 75 percent of the district’s villages no longer have reliable, year-round sources of fresh water.
It was not until the last decade that the federal government formally recognized the need to involve rural communities in managing water resources, and only in 1999 did it establish guidelines for involving women. However, the women of Gujarat began taking their first steps toward self-governance in water issues long before then.
Guided by an all-women trade union – the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) – Gujarati women began to exert their influence over state authorities and secured a greater voice for themselves not only within the community but also inside their own homes.
The underlying strategy behind this success has been to link protecting the environment with improving livelihoods. For rural women, economic benefits often depend on the health of the natural resources they rely on. Governments, however, often treat the environment and economic development as mutually exclusive.
For example, Gujarat is home to the massive Sardar Sarovar dam, which is now under construction. It is part of a network of more than 3,000 dams that will make up one of the world’s largest water projects with an extensive canal and irrigation system. Despite the project’s goal of alleviating water shortages in rural communities, an independent review commissioned by the World Bank found that plans for the delivery of water to villagers in the drought-prone regions of Gujarat are not on track and they are not likely to happen any time soon, if at all.
In 1986, the State Water Board of Gujarat invited SEWA to increase its participation in village-level water committees. After three consecutive years of drought, the water board believed that proactive local communities might succeed where more centralized management had failed. The water works in many regions were in complete disarray. SEWA held a number of meetings where villagers expressed two urgent needs: The need to conserve water, revive traditional sources like surface wells and ponds, and create alternative water sources like roof rainwater harvesting structures. The second need was to find non-water based work, as seasonal water shortages caused a loss of jobs.
To push for these changes, SEWA encouraged women to join local water committees, called pani samities. SEWA had already organized women into about 50 business-development groups – with activities from embroidery to timber and rainwater harvesting – to help them earn more money. Getting women a voice on local water committees was the next logical step because women are primarily responsible for fetching and using water.
At first, however, women were reluctant to come forward because water infrastructure was regarded as male territory. Most men were critical of women’s participation, and several went so far as to say they would not drink water from a source created by women. But women slowly gained confidence as they began to lead water activities, raise their productivity, and see their incomes increase. While a lot of women were initially reluctant, said Poonamben of Bharvad village, “now we’ve learned so much about measurements, maps, and surveying methods that everyone wants to become a member and know about these things.”
The initial 42 pani samities were to take over maintenance of the piped water system in the Santhalpur and Radhanpur sub-districts, including collecting user fees. But the state government reversed its position. So the village women turned to reviving and maintaining their traditional community sources of water. Pani samities began constructing check dams, deepening existing ponds, and lining ponds with plastic sheeting to prevent salination of the water from the region’s salty soils.
By 1995 the women’s association had accumulated a great deal of experience in the water sector throughout Gujarat, and its projects were yielding tangible economic, social, and environmental benefits throughout the state.
The state government, recognizing SEWA’s successes, invited the group to lead and implement a state-wide watershed development program. SEWA used this unprecedented opportunity to launch a more comprehensive program than the state had envisioned, one that not only promoted ecological regeneration, but fostered economic development as well.
The Water, Women, and Work Millennium Campaign, as it has been called, integrates erosion controls, water conservation measures, tree-planting and forestry initiatives, dryland agriculture, and education, training, and capacity building for communities.
Between 1995 and 2001, the water campaign spread to a total of 502 villages in 9 districts. Women comprised 80 percent or more of the membership of most of the new water users committees, and committee activities revolved around issues of particular interest to women – fodder growing, nursery plantations, improved agriculture, rainwater harvesting and capacity-building.
Results of the water campaign in Banaskantha have been impressive. Aquifers in 18 villages have been recharged. A total of 150 wells, including surface wells, tube wells, and farm wells, have been recharged in eight villages. In the Porana village alone, a total of 25 wells have been recharged. Salinity has decreased in the treated land thanks to various innovative and low-cost mechanisms for sweetening and recharging the groundwater. Groundwater is lifted with a water pump for irrigation and farmers are able to grow three crops annually instead of one. The investment was just Rs 5,000 (US$106) for each pump system.
SEWA’s success has prompted villagers and civil society groups to question India’s trend toward privatizing water distribution services. There is some sign that government agencies are beginning to trust the “people’s sector” to handle water supply activities, despite skepticism that poor, illiterate women could prove competent. The Gujarat Water Board has recently decided to give low priority to its private sector contract for managing piped water supply systems in Surendranagar, and handed responsibility directly to a community organization. (WRI Features, 1,050 words)