Women Need Water Rights, Not Just Technologies
In poor communities, technologies are often touted as panaceas for poverty. For women in productive and reproductive roles, technologies, such as those for fetching and storing water, can make daily tasks easier. But do such technologies actually ensure women’s rights?
by Masum Momaya
Technologies Alleviate Some Daily Burdens
Every day, new technologies, ranging from high-tech gadgets like iPhones to low-tech ones like pumps and plastics, are developed and made available for public use. Various stakeholders, including governments, the private sector and the philanthropists, support these developments with funds and visibility, sometimes claiming that technologies can transform people’s lives and be a panacea for poverty. Some technologies, if easily available, affordable and simple to use, do help people accomplish daily tasks, especially in environments where basic chores are labor-intensive.
Take, for example, the case of water. Many of the world’s women are responsible for obtaining water for families’ daily drinking, cooking, washing and farming needs. Some have to walk numerous kilometers to get it, often through difficult or dangerous terrain, carrying it in large containers on their heads. Even those who have some access via a well or a pipe may not have a consistent, dependable supply or have potable water free of pollutants and pathogens.
In the last decade or so, a number of technological innovations have alleviated some of the burdens associated with fetching and storing water. For example, the Hippo Roller, a plastic drum rolled in a manner similar to a wheeled suitcase, can transport enough water for a family of five to seven for a week or so. This means that a woman spends several hours a week, rather than several hours a day, walking for water and does not have to carry the heavy, large load on her head.
For those who have water in the ground beneath them but no pipes or wells to access it, the foot-peddled water pump draws up water from underground sources and enables farmers to irrigate small plots of land. This is particularly useful for the world’s small farmers - the majority of whom are women - as most of them do not have access to pipes, aquifiers or reservoirs for irrigation.
In places where wells are the major water source, a rope pump allows people to bring groundwater to the surface and eliminates the need for storage. The pump is easy to operate and does not require travel to access, allowing women to pull up water as needed without spending a lot of time or risking their lives in transport.
Water Affordability and Access are Obstacles
While some may assume that such technologies often make women’s lives easier, it is rare they there are panacea for poverty, especially since water is increasingly scarce and expensive.
6.7 billion people along with wildlife, ecosystems, agriculture and industries share the less than 1% of the world’s freshwater that is potable and accessible for use. And this small amount is rapidly depleting due to climate change; increased contamination; and escalating need by people, farms and industries for daily use. 
Meanwhile, governments, strapped for resources to provide public goods, are turning to the private sector for water provision. Acutely aware that water is even more precious than oil, the private sector has been capitalizing on the necessity of water. Banks and investors see water as a safe investment with stable returns and financially liquid assets, and now they are trying to recoup their losses in the financial and real estate sectors at the expense of water users. 
The increasing scarcity and privatization of water means a number of things for women. First, as private companies gain ownership rights to freshwater sources, women who could previously walk to them to obtain water are now being restricted from or even charged money for doing so.  Second, companies who purchase sources bottle the water to be sold rather than allowing local access to it, as it’s more profitable to do so. Even when companies build and make available taps to local municipalities, they sell it at costs that are prohibitively expensive, especially for poor women.  And since there is no substitute for water and water is absolutely necessary, without regulations, corporations can charge what they want for it, and people have no choice but to pay, if they can.
Many corporations also continue to extract available water for commercial production and pollute water supplies with industrial waste, depleting groundwater and freshwater sources and rendering them unusable. Finally, corporations have another tool to ensure market demand for “their” water: polluting wells.  Thus, technologies for fetching and storing water are irrelevant if women cannot access or afford water in the first place.
But there is another formidable obstacle.
Water: Commodity or Commons?
Problems with access and affordability are a symptom of a larger problem: that water is now seen as a commodity rather than a basic right. And sometimes, policymakers operate with the assumption that the promise of technologies can substitute for rights themselves. In other words, as long as women have gadgets, why do they need rights?
The United Nations and World Health Organization working alongside countless NGOs, have been fighting to ensure that all people have adequate affordable access to water that is potable and, wherever feasible, managed by communities rather than state bureaucracies or private enterprise. Community management often reduces dependence on the central governments and the private sector for this most basic need and makes local people – not government bureaucracies or commercial interests – the primary beneficiaries.
One age-old technology models this. With rainwater harvesting (RH), people – most often women – “catch” and store water during the rainy season for use throughout the year. In addition to engaging local communities in assessing water needs and building appropriate catchment systems, RH reduces women’s daily work in fetching water, conserves income which would otherwise go towards buying water, improves health and sanitation conditions, and increases income derived through farming.
This is one example of a technology that is participatory and lends itself to a rights-based approach. Through their own experience of the technology and with training and support from local NGOs, people participate in public policy processes that influence not just resource management but other related issues such as health care, sanitation and agricultural and trade policies. For women, in particular, such participatory technologies hold promise for protecting rights and bringing about well-being. In this way, technology is an enabler, and a daily burden can turn into an opportunity for participation and transformation.
 Shiva, Vandana. Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution and Profit. Boston: South End Press, 2002.