To tackle the water crisis, women’s leadership in water management is crucial
Water scarcity has been consistently considered as one of the top five risks by business leaders in the annual global risk report of the World Economic Forum. According to the United Nations, over two billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress. India alone has 88 million people who lack access to safe water, placing the nation at the centre of this global problem. Eighty per cent of India’s freshwater is used in agriculture, making it a critical resource for the livelihoods of farmers and the country’s food security. Farmers rely heavily on groundwater through wells and tube-wells. The crisis created by large-scale groundwater extraction needs concerted and scaled-up water management efforts in rural India.
The water problem runs deep, and to address it, it is crucial to identify and mobilise the right agents for change. Women constitute 37% of the agricultural workforce — with nearly 100 million involved in the sector. Several studies, as well as our institutional experience, have revealed that women spend twice the number of hours that men do, working on fields in the cropping season. With men increasingly migrating out of their villages, women are now working in farms alongside managing their homes — both of which need them to plan for and use water judiciously. Considering their high stakes in ensuring water security, women are well poised to champion change.
Women engage with the issue of water in different avatars — as farmers, panchayat members, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) workers and extension workers. This makes them well-suited to leading water management programmes. For instance, apart from their presence in agriculture, women have a significant representation in governance. At least 43% of elected representatives in local bodies such as panchayats, are women. Women’s participation in MGNREGS is high and stands at almost 55%.
They have also demonstrated their ability to mobilise funds from the government. In a project in West Bengal, women influenced the government to release MGNREGS funds to construct water supply structures that created an additional water potential of 7.4 billion litres and benefitted 35,000 women, Unicef’s work in India has also proved women’s prowess at mechanical work. In Jharkhand’s Lava panchayat, women formed a diverse group from across every panchayat to maintain 450 pumps. They even ran their village spare stores and met the domestic water needs of 130 villages. In this endeavour, they were more efficient and were able to resolve issues more quickly than their male counterparts.
A study conducted on water supply projects in Gujarat in 2000 showed that when women were included in technical and decision-making capacities, there was a marked improvement in the impact of projects. Women have also shown an eagerness to adopt new technologies, explore sustainable farming methods and spread awareness among their families, making them excellent potential water champions. A 2017 study, which explored the role of women farmers in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, reported that women-led collectives have driven changes in cropping practices, and demonstrated a bigger willingness to switch to organic inputs and grow climate-resilient crops that consume less water.
Women have been creating consistent ripples in India’s water security efforts — the time is right to leverage them as leaders of change. This heavily-invested, yet relatively unrecognised, demographic of women farmers are likely to power the next frontier of positive change. The idea that diverse leadership teams create better and more innovative outcomes is not new. Several organisations have deployed winning diversity programmes to deliver breakthrough business results, endear themselves to an increasingly conscious set of consumers and attract the best talent. With an already strong presence of driven and aware women in agriculture, the same principles can well be the key to accelerating India’s journey towards water security.
Sanjiv Mehta is chairman and managing director of Hindustan Unilever Limited
The views expressed are personal