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Beyond climate-proofing: gender dimensions of water insecurity in Burkina Faso

Updated: Aug 23, 2019

Terms like “climate finance” and “decarbonization” may mean little to poor farmers in rural Burkina Faso, but the impacts of a volatile climate are all too familiar. When water runs out towards the end of the dry season, as it often does in parts of the country, scarce clean water supplies must be rationed between livestock, and drinking, cooking and laundry; small businesses and brick-making are put on hold. During the worst years, some people migrate to cities and neighbouring countries.

There is growing awareness at international level that water is central to climate adaptation, and that safe water and sanitation access are threatened by climate-related changes. Water issues are being included in National Adaptation Plans, and efforts are being made to ”climate-proof” water and sanitation infrastructure – for example by constructing simple rainfall monitoring stations to estimate how much water is available for use, installing rainwater-harvesting systems or reservoirs, or hand-digging deeper or more numerous wells.

But how far are these efforts guided by an understanding of differences in the roles and vulnerabilities of women and men, or of marginalized groups in society? And if they are not, isn’t there a high risk that they will simply reinforce existing inequalities?

How men and women cope with water insecurity

Thanks to a REACH Catalyst grant, last year we carried out research in the Centre-Est region of Burkina Faso, bordering Ghana and Togo. As part of the research, we spoke to smallholder farmers and local NGOs working on these issues, including Wateraid, DAKUPA and l’Association Chant de femme. We started to understand better how water insecurity affects women and men differently, which influences how they cope with the impacts.

As one example, we learned that paying family water user fees is considered a man’s responsibility, while fetching water is a woman’s. However, if cash is short, men will often take money women earn through small businesses like making shea butter. When water is scarce and has to be collected from an hour or more away, it would be socially unacceptable for men to help, even if it would benefit the family.

Another phenomenon we heard about again and again is water scarcity – and its impact on farming yields – pushing men to migrate to work in neighbouring countries, or even to Europe for seasonal farm labour. This leaves women with even more responsibility for the household water and sanitation needs as well as farming.

Women also told us about how they try to cope in the dry season, using strategies like getting up very early to collect water, making water reserves, prioritizing water uses in the household, and sometimes abandoning their side-businesses. However, the reality is that they are sometimes forced to rely on extremely unsafe water supplies, putting their own and the household’s health at risk.

This piece was originally published on the Stockholm Environment Institute, SEI website

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