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Drinking water from a well in Uganda. (Photo: USAID/flickr/cc)

People's Water Summit: Women and Girls "Bear Brunt" of Global Crisis

The World Water Day event is being billed as an alternative "People's Summit" to the invite-only White House summit also taking place Tuesday

Deirdre Fulton

As a new report shows an estimated 650 million of the world's poorest people still lack access to water that is safe to consume and 2.5 billion people lack basic sanitation, warriors from the frontlines of this global crisis—many of them women and girls—are gathering in New York on Tuesday to affirm that water is a human right.

The World Water Day event is being billed as an alternative "People's Summit" to the invite-only White House Water Summit also taking place Tuesday, and will "ensure the voices of those directly impacted and working on the ground as advocates on the human rights to water and sanitation are heard," according to organizers. Scheduled to coincide with the the 60th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, sponsors of the panel include Food & Water Watch, the U.S. Human Rights Network (USHRN), Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, and WaterAid.

The latter group, an international non-profit headquartered in New York, released a report Tuesday entitled, Water: At What Cost? The State of the World's Water 2016. It finds that in 16 countries, more than 40 percent of the population does not even have access to a basic water facility like a protected well.

In turn, "[p]eople from impoverished, marginalized communities have no choice but to collect dirty water from open ponds and rivers," the report reads, "or spend large chunks of their income buying water from vendors"—in some cases, more than half their family's daily income.

"The price paid by these communities—in wasted income, ill-health, and lost productivity—is extremely high, and has a devastating impact from the family to the national level," WaterAid declares.

"Women and girls in many cases bear the brunt of this global water and sanitation crisis," the USHRN said in a call-to-action. "It often falls to them to collect water from further and further away, or to provide care to family members who fall ill from poor water or sanitation conditions. Open [defecation] can increase risks of sexual violence. Inability to manage menstruation with dignity can create barriers to education or to work. Water shut-offs also place mothers at risk of losing custody of their children, and contaminated water has particularly serious risks for pregnant and nursing women."

But as the drinking water crises in Flint, Michigan and beyond have acutely shown, these concerns are not limited to developing nations.

The USHRN statement continues: "The global North as well as the global South is being impacted by deprivation of these rights—high water rates and growing poverty, leads to water cut-offs and the criminalization of people, especially women, due to lack of access to water and sanitation."

As Amanda Hooper, deputy director of engagement and mobilization for the National Women's Law Center, wrote earlier this year, "the Flint water crisis is undeniably a feminist issue."

With 42 percent of Flint residents living below the poverty line—and data showing that women of color, single mothers, and elderly women living alone are disproportionately poor—"Low-income women of color, as well as undocumented immigrants, and their families are the ones who are hardest hit by this crisis," Hooper said at the time.

To that end, Flint representatives will be present for the People's Summit in New York, while organizers and advocates with Michigan's People's Water Board are also holding a rally and lobby day at the Michigan state legislature on Tuesday morning to encourage state lawmakers to pass a collection of bills known as the Water is a Human Right Bill Package (pdf). Among other things, the bills in the package would institute water shut-off protections for some residents; enact a water rate structure based on household income; and increase transparency on the part of water providers.

"Water shut-offs have severe economic consequences for women, particularly those who are head of household," said Sylvia Orduño of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. "Women are more likely to be caretakers of children so lack of water access has a greater impact. Single-female headed households that are no longer eligible for government assistance for needy children are disproportionately impacted by residential water shut-offs and unaffordable water bills."

For more on the scope of the crisis in the U.S., USHRN has created the following infographic:

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