Bangladesh is the seventh-most climate-affected country in the world, according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2020. Climate change manifests itself through various ways - though it is largely felt through water. Bangladesh has abundance of water with around 24,000 kms of rivers flowing through the land. However, water scarcity is an acute problem in various pockets of the country, particularly in the southwest coastal belt where salinity intrusion is increasingly affecting the communities in the region.
A rise in salinity has a multitude of impacts. It affects cropping patterns and results in lower yields. Fresh water sources are gradually being replaced by saline water, which then makes it difficult for communities to gain access to clean water for drinking, cleaning and other purposes. A salinity zoning map by the Institute of Water Modelling (IWM) shows salinity not only increased but also expanded throughout the southwest coastal belt between December 2011 and March 2012. Not all of this, however, is likely due to climate change alone. Human activities such as manipulating water bodies for shrimp farming has led to saltwater intrusion in ponds. The interaction of human activities with climate change impacts has resulted in a scenario where access to clean water is a major livelihood concern for millions. Taking advantage of the water crisis, many private vendors sell drinking water at exorbitant prices. Poor families are thus forced to compromise other basic needs to buy water, and those unable to afford this water either turn to unsafe water sources or invest substantial time and effort to access clean water.
Although the water crisis brought by climate change and human activities affects various communities throughout the country, it is women who suffer the most. According to the World Bank WASH Poverty Diagnostic for Bangladesh (2018), women have the burden of water collection in 90 per cent of households. Women have to walk two to three kilometres with heavy vessels to fetch water. Not only does walking long distances across rivers, unfinished roads, and bamboo bridges raises safety and health concerns for these women, it also takes up almost half of their day. The time spent in collecting water could have been used for productive purposes. The burden of water collection also affects school-going girls. A 2016 empirical study commissioned by the World Bank explored the linkages between the burden of water collection, drinking water salinity, and school attendance in the Sundarbans region and found that girls are less likely to attend school in order to collect water following an increase in salinity. The study also finds that while the probability of dropping out increases as girls grow older, there is no such increase for boys. The tendency of girls to drop out thus impinges their education and future livelihood opportunities.
The disproportionate impact of climate on women goes beyond access to water, extending to sanitation and hygiene as well. Women using saline water to wash clothes used during menstruation are at risk of urinary tract infections and other health complexities. Moreover, another World Bank study on Gender and Climate Change in Bangladesh finds that vulnerability to hazards is gendered. More than 80 per cent of women face difficulties in accessing sanitation during and after disasters, as opposed to less than 20 per cent of men. The challenges for women who are pregnant, disabled, and elderly are more pronounced. Difficulties in accessing sanitation facilities often forces women to defecate in plastic bags at home and dispose these bags at night. While there is also some gender variation in terms of difficulty in firewood and water collection, the relatively low variation in other aspects highlight the need for more action to address the gender disparity when it comes to water and sanitation. Women are thus at the frontline of bearing the brunt of climate and water impacts.
Recognisng this reality, WaterAid Bangladesh has rolled out a climate programme focusing on creating more gender-friendly and resilient water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities in communities, schools, and clinics in the coastal belt. The positive impact of the climate programme is reflected through working with community-led planning and disaster response committees to identify local threats and develop risk-reduction action plans and budgets, leading to better WASH outcomes for women.
One particular example that illustrates how WaterAid supports women in climate-vulnerable zones is the Water Entrepreneurship for Women Empowerment (We-We) model. The We-We model supports women to become water entrepreneurs. This model is based on the idea that although water vending is inevitable in areas with a water crisis, the practice can be controlled such that communities get affordable access to clean water. Women groups are trained to own, operate, and maintain water treatment plants profitably which ensures the sustainability of these plants. As a result, not only are communities able to access affordable water, women are also empowered through enhanced economic opportunities. Such water facilities thus make it easier for women to collect water for themselves and their families, without feeling the need to walk long distances, drop out of school, or forego other livelihood opportunities.
It is encouraging to note that the government of Bangladesh has prepared the Climate Change Gender Action Plan in 2013. Among other things, the action plan calls for a specific programme on water and sanitation. However, budgetary allocation and spending remains low for the water and sanitation programme. Furthermore, this gender action plan along with other relevant policies such as the National Women Development Policy 2011 were prepared in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) era but there was lack of emphasis on the inclusive and quality aspects as envisaged in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As such, it is imperative that these gender plans and strategies be realigned with the SDGs to ensure relevant interventions meet global benchmarks.
Climate and water are inextricably linked. However, there is a tendency in Bangladesh to view climate change as a problem of rural poverty and food security, often neglecting the health and WASH realities of vulnerable women in low income communities. Moreover, these linkages between climate, gender, and WASH need to go beyond simple recognition to concrete action.
Going forward, it is necessary to realise that WASH is not a privilege but a right as recognised by a UN General Assembly resolution in July 2010. As we enter into the tenth year of this acknowledgement, it is time to evaluate how far we have actually come in terms of enabling women to realise their basic right to WASH and respond accordingly. Only then would we be able to move towards the SDG vision of 'leaving no one behind'.
Hasin Jahan is Country Director and Zarif Rasul is Strategic Support Officer at WaterAid
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