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Thirsty to preserve: The Role of Women in Water Conservation Science

Written by Carolina Gutierrez, a 2017-2018 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph. D. Student in the Graduate Degree program in Ecology and the Department of Biology.

“Everybody says women are like water. I think it's because water is the source of life, and it adapts itself to its environment. Like women, water also gives of itself wherever it goes to nurture life....” ― Xinran, The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices[1]

Life is not possible without water, that much is an irrefutable fact. Water is integral to all levels of biological organization. It supports normal cellular function by transporting materials and molecular machinery, it facilitates chemical reactions, it transports nutrients inside all living organisms, and it helps remove toxins and waste. Albert von Szent-Györgyi, Physiology or Medicine Nobel Laureate who partly discovered vitamin C, referred to water as “the matrix of life”[2].

It is no wonder then, that in a planet brimming with living organisms, water occupies most of its surface. On Earth, about 71% of the planet’s surface is covered with water. The oceans hold over 96% of all Earth’s water, while the vast majority of freshwater resources is locked up in ice caps, glaciers and underground storage[3]. Only around 1% of total water in our planet is in usable liquid form, mostly in rivers, streams and lakes. Thus, it would be logical to conserve these precious ecosystems, to make sure they are kept healthy and unpolluted, since our lives so heavily depend on them. However, it is estimated that 844 million people are currently living without access to safe, clean water, which means that around 1 in 9 people lack access to safe, drinkable water[4]. We need to design better strategies, that apply scientific knowledge to restore and preserve our freshwater ecosystems.

This is particularly critical in developing countries, where much of the world’s freshwater resources are concentrated and where access to clean water resources is most limited. It has been referred to as the world water crisis, and its impact is disproportionately stronger on women and children[4] (Figure 1). In remote rural areas, particularly in developing countries, women and children are often responsible for collecting water, which takes time away from attending school, working or caring for family. Reducing the time spent in collecting water increases chances of children having access to better education and play time, giving them opportunities for a brighter future.

The lack of access to clean water also has stronger effects on reproductive health for women, since childbearing and rearing becomes that much harder without appropriate water resources
(Figure 2).

In 2006 the United Nations developed a policy brief through their Task Force on Gender and Water (GWTF) recognizing the necessity of involving women on water conservation projects and stressing the fact that sustainable management of water resources requires more involvement from scientists, particularly female scientists, to increase chances of success. Women are in general under-represented in terms of careers and training in water science and management. Projects that address the science behind water conservation and the social and gender equality component of water access have greater chances of making a permanent change to improve quality of life for entire communities.

As a female Stream Ecologist from Colombia, I feel great passion and responsibility for this topic. I believe science has a duty to generate results that make a lasting impact on quality of life for all living organisms, and this resonates in many different contexts. A scientific understanding of the delicate interactions sustaining freshwater ecosystems will serve to conserve water for human consumption. For this, it is critical to work on all possible aspects of water conservation science, involving physics, chemistry, biology, physiology, ecology, statistics, management, policy and social sciences. So, if you have ever wondered: How does research by scientists studying water molecules or water force dynamics, or algae or aquatic insects, or ecosystem restoration affect me? The answer is: Each of these disciplines addresses a piece of the complex puzzle to preserve clean and sustainable water resources for the present and future, which affects every single living organism in this planet.

Several countries and regions have started projects and partnerships geared towards water sanitation and conservation, with special emphasis in training women for leadership roles in water resource management. Good examples of such projects are the Latin American Clean Water Initiative, which seeks to facilitate sustainable water solutions and improve the health and well-being of individuals living in extreme poverty in 13 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The project seeks to: 1) Provide access to potable water and sanitation systems, 2) Improve sustainable water supplies for productive activities and train individuals to manage the water systems effectively, and 3) Offer educational workshops in water conservation, hygiene and water-related illnesses. The program will be implemented in 13 countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela[5].

The Nature Conservancy has created water funds, including 32 initiatives in various stages of development, which provide a steady source of funding for the conservation of more than 7 million acres of watersheds and secure drinking water for nearly 50 million people. Water users pay into the funds in exchange for the product they receive — fresh, clean water. The funds, in turn, pay for forest conservation along rivers, streams and lakes, to ensure safe drinking water for users[6].

These are just a few examples of actions for water conservation at the outreach and management level, however there are also efforts at the cultural level. In 2015 Nocem Collado directed and produced a documentary titled “Women and Water” that draws a parallel between cycles of life and water, analyzing the role women play in water management through the lives of four women. You can watch the full documentary on:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MVTqqqJhDag

I believe we all must contribute our part in solving the water sustainability crisis in the best way we are able to. For me personally, that means using Stream Ecology Science to understand the interactions of living organisms inhabiting streams and rivers. My research focuses on aquatic insects and their roles and functions in bodies of freshwater, and how those roles change in the context of elevation gradients and more importantly, latitudinal gradients. I come from a tropical country, I have seen the life force that streams and rivers represent for those in and around them, but I also know how much of understanding exactly the balance of diversity and function of life inside these ecosystems we still lack, particularly in the tropics[7].

Although water conservation is an issue that disproportionately impacts women, we cannot reach the goal of preserving water resources on Earth unless we ALL get involved in educating ourselves about threats to water resources and supporting the empowerment of women through education and equality of opportunities, because as Sandra Postel once said:

For many of us, water simply flows from a faucet, and we think little about it beyond this point of contact. We have lost a sense of respect for the wild river, for the complex workings of a wetland, for the intricate web of life that water supports[8]

If you would like to know more about The Water Crisis and what you can do about it, you can visit:

https://water.org/our-impact/water-crisis/


[1] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/337320-everybody-says-women-are-like-water-i-think-it-s-because

[2] https://www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/solarsystem/Water:_Molecule_of_Life.html

[3] https://water.usgs.gov/edu/earthhowmuch.html

[4] https://water.org/our-impact/water-crisis/

[5] https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/partnership/?p=1567

[6] https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/latinamerica/water-funds-of-south-america.xml

[7] https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Carolina_Gutierrez5

[8] Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity (1997), 184. 

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