Remarks by USAID Global Water Coordinator Christian Holmes at the Center on the Hill Forum on Women and Water Streams of Development

Friday, September 23, 2011
Water Security for Women and Girls

On behalf of the Agency for International Development, I appreciate this opportunity to provide an overview of USAID's efforts to provide women and girls with water security.

In my presentation, I would like to briefly;

  • Describe the overall environment in which women seek to meet the water needs of their families, communities and themselves;
  • Describe some of USAID's projects related to women, water, and development. These activities span the work of women related to water and health, food , climate , and conflict; and
  • Discuss research needs related to addressing women, water, and conflict.


My message today is:

  • While nearly a billion people worldwide live without access to clean water, the crisis disproportionately affects women and girls.
  • While financial resources of course play a major role in meeting development needs of immense magnitude, the application of human resources is far more important.
  • Our planet is not utilizing the full range of its human talent --particularly women and girls-- to develop and implement solutions. USAID programs such as those devoted to keeping girls in school and helping meet water and sanitation needs enable women and girls to develop and apply their potential; to address not only water but the complete spectrum of development challenges. In so doing, the world is, and will be, far better off.


  1. Diarrheal diseases kill approximately 2 million children under five each year, either directly (1.3 million deaths) or from other causes as a consequence of diarrhea-related malnutrition (an additional 600,000 to 700,000 deaths). Severe repeated bouts of diarrheal disease afflicting children in the first two years of life can also lead to physical and mental stunting.
  2. The numbers of people suffering from hunger and poverty worldwide exceeds one billion. Climate change, food shortages and inadequate water supply, water quality, and sanitation will significantly contribute to political, social and economic instability in the developing world. By 2025, the global population is projected to have risen to 8 billion people, one third of which - 2.4 billion people, spread over 40 countries - will face absolute water scarcity.
  3. Between now and 2015, an estimated 700 million people will be without access to an improved water supply and approximately 1.6 billion will lack access to improved sanitation, with waterborne diarrheal diseases being a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in the developing world.
  4. In Africa, at least twice as much food must be produced by 2050 to avoid widespread starvation amongst an expected population of 1.8 billion. But, food production per capita has been declining, and cereal yields have remained stagnant since the 1960s.
  5. By the middle of the 21st century, annual average river runoff and water availability are projected to increase as a result of climate change at high latitudes and in some wet tropical areas, and decrease over some dry regions at mid-latitudes and in the dry tropics. Many semi-arid and arid areas such as southern Africa are particularly exposed to the impacts of climate change and are projected to suffer a decrease of water resources.
  6. Higher water temperatures and changes in extremes, including floods and droughts, are projected to affect water quality and exacerbate many forms of water pollution.
  7. The global search for energy and food supplies, as noted in the World Bank's 2011 World Development Report, is amplifying pressure on arable land.

While nearly a billion people worldwide live without access to clean water, the crisis disproportionately affects women and girls. As nurturers and homemakers, women bear the overwhelming responsibility of finding and collecting water for their families. The profound impact which a lack of adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene has on a woman's sense of dignity and self-worth extends far beyond the physical hardships associated with the chores themselves:

  • On average, women and girls in developing countries walk six kilometers (approximately 3.5 miles) a day, carrying 20 liters (approximately 42 pounds/20 kgs) of water. In some areas, it is common for this journey to take more than 15 hours a week.
  • Some walk 25 kilometers to collect water. This takes six hours each day. Although a household requires about 40 liters of water a day, a women, or young girl, may only be able to carry 15 to 20 liters on her own. So sometimes her family can only eat once a day due to the lack of water.
  • The World Bank has done a study in Ghana on girls water hauling and school attendance. They found "a 15 minute reduction in hauling time would increase the proportion of girls aged 5-15 attending school by 8-12%".
  • Where latrines are not available, women and girls seeking privacy will travel outside their villages after dark, exposing themselves to a greater risk of harassment and sexual assault.
  • Female school staff and girls who have reached puberty are less likely to attend schools that lack gender-specific sanitation facilities. Of the 72 million school-age children not attending school around the world, the majority are girls. As a direct result, more than half of the world's illiterate young people are girls.

USAID Goal and Strategy

Water Security

Our objective is to provide water security to women and girls.

Fundamentally, water security is about ensuring that:

  • people receive the necessary supply of water for multiple uses: consumption, agricultural production, energy production and transportation, and human health
  • people are best protected from and adapt to changes in water supply, particularly floods and drought
  • natural systems which are sources of water, watersheds, groundwater and surface water, are protected and drawn upon in a sustainable fashion.

Our strategy is:

  • Both to meet the immediate needs of women but also to empower them as leaders, developers and implementers of solutions.
  • To empower women in multiple sectors linked to water: water supply, heath, agriculture, climate change, education, conflict and more.
  • To develop lasting sustainable solutions in the overall context of economic development.

Regarding "sustainability", while it is of course important to support developing water wells near a woman's home and community so as to reduce the great distances women travel for water, it is equally important to ensure that agricultural and rain water harvesting practices are undertaken so that the ground water supplying the wells is replenished, the wells remain productive, and women do not face dry wells and the need to travel long dangerous distances in search of water.

Before getting into examples of our approaches, let me share with you this story which will help bring to life the challenge and opportunity of women meeting water and related needs.

A Woman's Story

In 1993, women's advocate Hajiya Salamatu Garba had a chance meeting with a pregnant woman on a visit to her native region of Kaduna, Nigeria that had a profound effect on her. "She saw herself as being a 'reproductive machine,' always either pregnant, nursing a child, doing household chores, being obedient and loyal to men, etc.," Salamatu explained. During a subsequent visit, Hajiya searched for the woman, but learned she had died in childbirth. That experience inspired Salamatu to begin working on behalf of the women in the area by founding the Women Farmer's Advancement Network (WOFAN) with support from USAID. "I thought I could assist fellow women from my region with some awareness programs on general issues that affect the well-being of women," she stated recently. WOFAN's primary mission is to relieve hunger and poverty and to educate rural women, children, and youths in northern Nigeria and several neighboring countries to improve their food security, enhanced income potential, and overall well-being.

Focusing on northern Nigeria, WOFAN provides a wide range of services, including education about health issues, literacy training, and economic empowerment, micro-credit for farmers, childcare development, leadership skills, and HIV/AIDS awareness. One of its primary goals is teaching women about soil, water, and agro-forestry conservation. WOFAN has established an 18-month partnership with USAID to improve access to clean water in 48 communities located in the states of Bauchi, Kano, and Sokoto. To date, the partnership has helped to build and operate hand pump boreholes, rain catchment systems, ventilated pit toilets, and hand washing stations. They have trained 340 people - many of them women - to maintain and repair the hand pumps. WOFAN also added information about sanitation and water usage to its weekly radio broadcast that informs women about new farming technology.

One of the partnership's greatest successes was providing two blocks of 16 toilet facilities and 24 water outlets to the Special Education Centre in Bauchi. The school educates approximately 700 students who are deaf or blind. "We hope that this will improve learning and good health for all the students," said Salamatu. "The school's principal, Mallam Maikano, noted to me that parents are now more willing to allow their children to attend the school," she added. At the Special Education Center, as at all beneficiary schools, WOFAN helped to establish school gardens which utilize hand pump spillage water for irrigation and teach students good agricultural practices.

Women and Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

Afghanistan Sustainable Water Supply and Sanitation project (SWSS)

In Afghanistan, our Sustainable Water Supply and Sanitation project (SWSS) engages women and girls in improvements in sanitation and hygiene in these ways. First, women's groups have emerged as leaders in decision-making around village sanitation improvements for all the same reasons found around the world: women's focus on dignity, privacy, and family health. Second, SWSS works with local NGOs in each village to create women-driven Family Health Action Groups where young mothers learn hygiene practices and the skills to communicate them to other women. Third, half of the SWSS hygiene education trainers and facilitators are women who travel to villages to train NGO staff and Community Health Workers in the basics of sanitation and hygiene. Fourth, we work extensively with girls' schools across the country to provide facilities and teach hygiene and hand washing practices - 30,000 school children were mobilized on Global Hand Washing Day in 2010, and we anticipate an even larger turnout this year. Fourth, the SWSS team has a women-led finance staff who have mastered USAID's accounting requirements, and accounted for every dime of funding provided, while the leaders pursue their MBAs in evening school in Kabul. This three-year investment has made enormous changes to the lives of individual rural and professional women and girls.

Indonesia - "Blessed Water"

More than 100 million people in Indonesia lack access to safe drinking water. Even in places where water is piped into homes, it is not necessarily safe. Indonesian women know that to protect their children from diarrhea, the second leading cause of death among Indonesian children under age 5, they must find safe water. They boil contaminated water or buy bottled water. Gathering enough fuel for boiling can take half a day, and kerosene for gas stoves is expensive.

In 2008, USAID worked with NGOs, community groups, schools, and all levels of the government to support activities to increase access to safe water, including a public-private partnership to promote an affordable, practical, user-friendly water treatment technology called Air RahMat ("Blessed Water"). A few drops of this lifesaving 1.25 percent sodium hypochlorite solution makes water safe to drink, and one bottle can meet the needs of a family of five for a month. Clinical studies show that the solution, which was developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, can reduce the incidence of diarrheal diseases by 85 percent. USAID is supporting the product's production, distribution, promotion, and marketing in Indonesia.

Ethiopia- HIV/AIDS and WASH

Diarrheal disease can occur throughout the course of HIV and AIDS, affecting 90 percent of people living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHA) and resulting in significant morbidity and mortality. A small but growing number of studies have demonstrated the importance of good water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) practices for preventing diarrhea and improving the health and quality of life for PLWHA. Household members, especially children, are also at risk of contracting diarrhea from PLWHA suffering from the condition. Despite this evidence, WASH and HIV/AIDS are not routinely integrated into policies and programs, and home-based and palliative care programs seldom have a hygiene component. To address this challenge, USAID's Hygiene Improvement Project (HIP) worked with NGOs providing home-based care services in Ethiopia to design and carry out a trial of improved practices (TIPs) to help identify simple, easy to adopt WASH-related practices to integrate into HIV/AIDS programs to reduce diarrheal risk. These practices, known as "small doable actions" (SDA), were designed to be negotiated by home-based caregivers with PLWHA and their families.

Kenya: Protecting and Empowering Women

An example of USAID-supported work addressing women and water is found in Mara Kenya, one of driest areas in Kenya. On average, a household requires about 40 liters of water a day. But because women must walk up to six hours to get water, they must live on 15-20 liters a day. The journey is not only arduous; it is also very dangerous, as the source of water is shared with lions and elephants. Women have been killed by wildlife at watering holes. USAID is partnering with World Concern to better empower women and protect them. The project builds wells near the community, in this case some 20 minutes away, and at the same time engages women in a wide range of community development activities including latrine construction, hygiene and sanitation practices, and community involvement through community development committees, water management committees, and training for health promoters and women's groups.

Women, Water and Food Production;

  • The women of the Green Belt Movement in Africa have taken the now sadly deceased Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai 's lead to begin planting trees, which provide multiple resources to their communities: water, wood, and fruit, as well as cover and shade;
  • Women in Nigeria, with the help of the Women Farmers Advancement Network (WOFAN), have mastered sustainable farming techniques, leading to empowerment through enterprise, literacy programs, and early childhood development programs;
  • Three remarkable AWARD (African Women in Agricultural Research and Development) fellows-women scientists who, with grant dollars and support from USAID and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), are putting their research skills to use developing life-changing innovations to better the health and water quality for their communities in what countries?.

    Peru- Women, Water and Climate Change

    In Peru, melting glaciers are threatening water supplies for farming, hydropower, and drinking water. Women who have been elected to the municipal councils have established their own climate change network. Through USAID, they are trained and have opportunities to talk with rural women so their concerns and interests are reflected in local adaptation projects

    Somalia- Women, Water and Education:

    The School Environment and Education Development for Somalia (SEEDS) Program is a new, three-year $12 million grant funded by USAID. SEEDS is designed to better the educational environment in at least 250 communities by improving instructional quality, school management and infrastructure, including water and hygiene. It also provides technical assistance to help government education officials promote community-led initiatives to improve education, water and sanitation while honing their management skills. This program has enabled schools to provide adequate water and sanitation facilities which in turn provide girls with privacy and sanitation facilities, enabling them to remain in school.

    Women, Water and Conflict Mitigation:

    From dusty stretches of southern Sudan to the densely forested eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, from the mangrove swamps of southwestern Colombia to the rice paddies of Cambodia, USAID staff has witnessed firsthand the connections between gender, water, and violence in conflict-affected countries. USAID has efforts underway to help mitigate the likelihood of such conflict. For example: We need to improve our understanding on the connections between the well-established vulnerabilities of women and girls around water collection and the broader contexts in which that violence is situated. To that end, USAID's Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation (CMM), in partnership with the Woodrow Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program are seeking to better understand the underlying causes of that heightened vulnerability and its explicit connections with conflict. With this new research we hope to establish a broader frame of reference in order to help address not only the victimization of women in these environments but to simultaneously improve our understanding of the root causes and consequences of that vulnerability by analyzing the connections with the dynamics of conflict and instability. This includes careful consideration of the range of factors driving risk of attack. The research will also identify what opportunities may exist through water-related programming to reduce the underlying sources of conflict. Our goal is to proactively shore up community resiliency and build stability.


    Our planet faces enormous challenges, especially the developing world with its severe water and food shortages occurring while its population increases signifigantly. While financial resources of course play a major role in meeting development needs of immense magnitude, the application of human resources is critical. USAID programs devoted to keeping girls in school and helping meet water and sanitation needs enable women and girls to develop and apply their potential, to address not only water but the complete spectrum of development challenges. In so doing, the world is, and will be, far better off.

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC

Last updated: May 30, 2012

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