Water as a dimension of poverty

Water is a human right enshrined in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In 2010 the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Human Rights Council recognised the right to water as part of the broader right to an adequate standard of living. SDG Target 6.1 aims to achieve ‘universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all’.

A safe, reliable and sufficient water source sustains life and health, is essential for sanitation, food preparation, and personal and household hygiene, and is fundamental for human dignity and privacy.

What the research reveals about water access and insecurity

The absence of safe and sufficient water can result in a range of illnesses. Every year, 2.2 million people in developing countries die from diseases associated with poor water supply and sanitation (UNICEF and WHO, 2012). Children’s health, education and wellbeing are greatly affected by their access to safe drinking water and sanitation. In countries with high child mortality, diarrhoea is the main cause of death in children aged under 5 years, and over 90 percent of child mortality cases are related to contaminated water and inadequate sanitation (Ezeh et al., 2014).

Marginalised groups are most likely to have unsafe or inadequate water supply and are often excluded from decisions about water supply and management (Das and Safini, 2018: 181). Lack of access to a clean and reliable water source results in households resorting to means of water collection and storage that increase the likelihood of water-borne diseases. Both the proximity and accessibility of water sources are important, and people may resort to polluted water sources to lessen the time burden of water collection (Crow and Sultana, 2002).

Access, use and collection of water are highly gendered. Women’s responsibility for providing water for household use means they are particularly impacted by the lack of access to a safe, reliable and sufficient water source (Van Houweling, 2016). While responsibility for the provision of water for domestic use falls to women, the collection of water is the responsibility of both women and children, and is a significant time and labour burden (Geere et al., 2018; WHO and UNICEF, 2017). Individuals may spend several hours per week on water collection, impacting negatively on other activities, including income generation, education and rest. If water is not readily available, individuals may have to carry water over long distances, resulting in severe fatigue, strain on the body and other ailments (Chant, 2013:21).

The risks and physical demands of water collection must also be considered. Geere et al.’s (2018) systematic review of the literature on water collection in sub-Saharan Africa found that women and children are not only exposed to risk of ill-health or injury as a result of the physical demands of water collection, but are also vulnerable to harassment, physical assault and sexual violence. Ayoade et al.’s (2017) research in Nigeria with 800 girls aged between 5 and 15 years found that 55 percent reported having experienced sexual assault or harassment while collecting water. Several studies reviewed by Geere et al. (2018) found that dangerous animals often frequent paths to water collection points and pose both a physical threat and create a sense of fear.    

What the IMMP reveals about access to water

The participatory research on which the IMMP is based identified the lack of access to water and difficulties in collecting water as important indicators of poverty. Participants described the most deprived people in their communities as needing to travel long distances and spend a significant amount of time to collect water. They spoke of the deleterious health consequences of the physical labour required to collect water, and of the extent to which water collection prevents individuals from engaging in a range of other activities. The water sources available to the poorest people were often unreliable and contaminated, resulting in a range of health problems. Participants also identified the risk of harassment, physical and sexual violence, and animal attacks as threats that are associated with collecting water from sources away from the home.

What the IMMP Water dimension measures

The water dimension of the IMMP consists of three themes: drinking water (source and treatment), domestic water (source and reliability of water for domestic uses), and water collection threats.

Theme 1: Drinking water

The first theme considers the source and treatment of drinking water. Its one indicator is developed with the following variables: drinking water source; drinking water sufficiency; and treatment of drinking water (if yes, method recorded).

Theme 2: Domestic water

The second theme refers to water for domestic use, such as cooking, washing and bathing (i.e. uses other than for drinking). The theme's one indicator considers two variables: domestic water source; and domestic water sufficiency.

Theme 3: Water collection threats

The third theme relates to the hazards and threats associated with collecting water, where relevant. The theme is constructed with one indicator using two variables: whether the respondent has responsibility for collecting water, and if so, the threats experienced while collecting water.

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