Why is it critical to train women on water quality

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train women on water quality

For women, water crisis is personal. Using and managing water at the household level, it becomes critical that they be trained and engaged in water quality at the community level in rural India, writes Hemalatha Patil. 

India is suffering an alarming water crisis with economic growth, livelihood, human well-being as well as ecological sustainability at stake. Home to 17% of the world’s population, India has only 4% of the world’s freshwater resources. 

The National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) has the vision to provide every rural individual with adequate safe water for drinking, cooking and other domestic basic needs on sustainable basis. 

However, drinking water quality is a widely emerging problem across the country. A range of water quality problems threatens the country and especially rural areas who depend mostly on groundwater as source of drinking water. Ideally, the quality of drinking water delivered to these communities by the government should have no significant health risk. Drinking water sources accessed by the communities should be tested safe and also conform to the quality standard followed by national programmes. Evidently, declining water quality has become a national issue of concern with growing population, expanding industrial and agricultural activities, and climate change threats, causing major alterations to the hydrological cycle. 

Water quality is affected by a wide range of natural and human influences. The most important of the natural influences are geological, hydrological and climatic, since these affect the quantity and the quality of water available. The reports available at Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation indicate contaminations in public water sources in rural areas based on a number of indicators including bacteriological contaminants. Apart from the sources, transportation of water from public hand pumps and community stand-posts as well as handling of water at the point of consumption may impact the quality of water. Since the monitoring quality of water supplied from public sources involves conducting tests of different parameters, a minimum number of tests as per national water quality protocol should be considered. Overall purpose is that monitoring procedures should serve as early warning system and when contamination occurs, effective quality tests can provide early warnings, which should then lead to possible solutions. 

Today most of rural India is facing severe water quality problems. As on date, 45 districts from ten states are affected with arsenic, fluoride is present in 202 districts and 20 states, nitrate in 141 districts and 21 states, and iron in 258 districts and 24 states. Arsenic, fluoride, nitrate alone threaten the health of hundreds of millions of people in India. Additionally, microbiological contamination in drinking water is a major contributor to diarrhoeal disease. Evidence shows that water quality interventions have a greater impact on diarrhoeal mortality and morbidity, especially when interventions are applied at the household level and combined with improved water handling and storage. 

Participatory water quality monitoring, dissemination of information, awareness and education of the rural population have great significance in the government programme. Thus, requisite mechanisms to monitor drinking water quality and educate people on health and hygiene have been deliberated in uniform water quality protocol of government. The programme envisages institutionalisation of community participation for monitoring and surveillance for drinking water sources at the grassroots level by village water and sanitation committee members, ASHA and Anganwadi worker and active women using Field Testing Kit (FTK).   

Women and water

There are strong linkages between access to women and water. A gender-neutral approach to water refers to assuring that all people regardless of gender benefit from and are empowered by improved water services. Due to cultural and historic reasons, women are often the primary collectors, transporters and users of water in rural households. 

For women, water crisis is personal. They are responsible to ensure that their families have water to survive; for drinking, cooking, sanitation and hygiene. And for this, they may stand in long queues and wait for water or they may walk long distances to collect water. 

If a water system breaks down, women, are most likely to be affected, for they may have to travel further for water or use other means to meet the household’s water need. Women have a strong incentive to acquire and maintain improved and conveniently located water facilities, since they often spend more time collecting water. Hence women and girls tend to benefit most when water quality and quantity improves. Given their strong established active role, women usually are very knowledgeable about current water sources, their quality and reliability they will also be key players in implementing improved hygiene behaviour. When women are empowered with safe water at home, they are empowered to change their world, no longer burdened by the water crisis. 

Why engage with women for water quality testing

As women tend to use and manage water at household level, it’s important for them to ensure that the water they drink is of assured quality. Hence it is critical that women need to be trained and engaged in monitoring and surveillance of water quality at the community level in rural India using Field Testing Kit (FTK).

Why community-based water quality monitoring

  1.  Monitoring and surveillance of drinking water sources by women in the community to enhance awareness of the requirement of safe drinking water
  2. Generation of awareness among the rural masses about issues around water quality and water-borne diseases
  3. Identification of sources with contamination and creating awareness in the community
  4. To restrict manmade contaminations of raw water that can be converted to potable water
  5. Initial screening of a large number of water samples that are to be tested in the laboratories to ascertain the level of contamination

Monitoring of water quality

Monitoring water quality

Monitoring of water quality involves field testing of water samples collected from water sources and consumer end/delivery points. Water quality monitoring in rural areas comprises two level of inspection viz., (i) water quality testing in state/ district/ sub-division/ block/ mobile water quality testing laboratory (ii) Use of FTKs at Gram Panchayat level/ village level to find out extent of contamination and refer the positively tested samples to nearby water quality testing laboratory for confirmation.

Surveillance of water quality 

Surveillance is an investigative activity undertaken to identify and evaluate factors associated with drinking water which could pose a risk to health. It is also both preventive, detecting risks so that remedial action may be taken before public health problems occur and identifying the sources of outbreaks of waterborne disease so that corrective action may be taken promptly. Surveillance requires a systematic programme of surveys including sanitary inspection. A sanitary inspection is an on-site inspection of a water supply facility to identify actual and potential sources of microbiological contamination.

Field Testing Kit 

Field Test Kit (FTK) is a qualitative to semi-quantitative method for drinking water quality management, which generally comes in a very handy measurable box. The application of Field Test Kit is much more important especially for the rural areas where the availability of quality drinking water has been the area of serious concern. On the other hand, the need for Water Quality Field Test Kit has emerged as the prominent aspect of capacity building.

All the Gram Panchayats in rural India have received FTK and are planning to institutionalise water quality monitoring. In this regard WaterAid in its intervention area has tried out couple of models that can be scaled up in other areas.

  • Model 1.  Water quality monitoring by Self Help Groups (SHGs) in Kanker district of Chattisgarh. SHGs were identified and they were trained on water quality by using FTK and bacteriological testing by using H2S vials. SHG members collect samples and conduct test in the presence of community and sensitising the community if contamination is found in drinking water source. This also involves recording and sharing of data with the district administration for mitigation. 
  • Model 2. Water quality monitoring by Basti Vikas Manch in urban areas. Active women members are trained on water quality testing. They conducting water quality tests (bacteriological testing twice in a year and chemical testing once a year). If the sample is found contaminated, they send it to the laboratory for confirmation. If results are positive again, they report the issue to the concerned department. 
  • Model 3. Streamlining water quality monitoring in institutions, especially in government schools (both residential and non-residential). Schools children especially girls and a female teachers have been trained on water quality testing. 

In conclusion, it is essential that women who are the users as well as managers of water at the household level need to be engaged in water quality monitoring. They are the primary decision-makers when it comes to water. Interestingly, when women influence water management and quality monitoring, their communities get measurably better outcomes – including better quality of water for consumption, improved access, and economic and environmental benefits as well.

Hemalatha Patil is Manager – Knowledge Management at WaterAid India.