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Elizabeth Shope’s Blog

Women, Water, and Climate Change: Recognizing the struggles of women and addressing global challenges on International Women's Day

Elizabeth Shope

Posted March 8, 2012

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 This blog was co-written with Mona Avalos.

Women carrying water from unimproved source in Bangladesh credit

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Today is International Women’s Day – a day not only for celebrating the contributions made by women around the globe but also for highlighting some of the continued challenges and injustices they face. One major struggle which affects women disproportionately is lack of access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities.

In developing countries, women carry the lead role in the knowledge around quality, location, reliability and storage of local water resources. On average, women spend more time than men collecting, storing and protecting their water source which takes time away from their ability to learn and contribute in other ways. In just one day, 200 million work hours are consumed by women collecting water for their families – preventing many young girls from attending school or participating in other more productive activities. Some women have to walk about 3 miles to collect water. Collecting water can also be dangerous; especially for girls and women who live in war-stricken areas, they are at times confronted with violence.

As a whole, nearly a billion people still lack access to clean drinking water and over two and a half billion lack a safe, hygienic place to go to the bathroom. Lack of safe drinking water and sanitation is the single largest cause of illness and contributes to the death of 2 million people a year. These issues are unfortunately exacerbated by global warming; more frequent and severe droughts and floods increase water shortages and cause more widespread contamination and sanitation challenges.

It is critical that the U.S. work to tackle these global environmental, public health, and social justice issues quickly and efficiently. Addressing climate change and safe drinking water issues separately will not do the trick. In working to mitigate environmental issues including climate change, we must do so in a way that is respectful of the needs of developing countries where many people still lack access to safe drinking water; and we must ensure that that future water supply and sanitation infrastructure is climate-resistant so as to avoid catastrophic setbacks. Coordinating our work on climate, water supply and sanitation issues will be more efficient and will more quickly help to break the cycle of injustice that many women now face due to lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities.  

So how do can we do this? In 2005, realizing the severity of the safe water and sanitation crisis, Congress passed the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act; however it has not been fully implemented or fully funded, and over six years later, the State Department still has not produced the comprehensive water strategy required by the Act. New legislation – the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act – has been introduced in both the House and the Senate; this legislation would improve and facilitate the implementation of the Water for the Poor Act, solidifying higher level positions in the U.S. Administration for handling these issues, and encouraging collaboration between those working on water and sanitation issues, and those working on environmental, public health, education, gender and other issues.  

Each year, the month of March also brings World Water Day; we will be celebrating the twentieth World Water Day on March 22. With World Water Day just around the corner and with safe drinking water issues affecting so many women, it is time to take action.

To get involved you can:

  1. Tell your Representative and Senators to support global access to safe drinking water.
  2. Donate your voice with your Facebook or Twitter page leading up to World Water Day.
  3. And if you will be in Washington, DC on March 21 and 22, you can join in the events we are putting on in DC – a series of Learning Sessions, an Advocacy Day on the Hill, and a celebratory reception.

Ultimately, though, while it is important to recognize International Women’s Day and World Water Day this year and every March, we must make great strides on these issues with hard work, thoughtful spending and innovation – on more than just these single holidays. After all, for the women who bare the heavy burden of supplying water for their communities, this is a struggle that they face every single day.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

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