Academic journal article Rural Society

Bearing the Cost: An Examination of the Gendered Impacts of Water Policy Reform in Malawi

Academic journal article Rural Society

Bearing the Cost: An Examination of the Gendered Impacts of Water Policy Reform in Malawi

Article excerpt

The water crisis and the developing world

Water insecurity is one of the most significant issues facing the global population at the present time. Whether too much water, too little, contamination or restricted access is most pressing, insecurity is rife. More than one billion people, one sixth of the earth's population, do not have adequate access to safe drinking water (UNDP, 1994).

In the course of this paper two main terms will be used in referring to water problems and these require some clarification. The term water scarcity is used here to describe physical shortfalls in water. In essence, water scarcity will refer to situations where there is simply insufficient water. Water insecurity, on the other hand, is a much more general term covering, not only scarcity and drought, but also issues such as contamination, insufficient access to water and prohibitive pricing.

The majority of water insecurity is concentrated in developing countries, particularly in the Middle East and Africa (Shetty, 2006; Winpenny, n.d.). People living in much of the developing world are not only forced to use more marginal and water scarce land (Aiken, 1994), but also have less adequate infrastructure for distribution and avoiding contamination, and less capacity to address the consequences of scarcity (Winpenny, n.d.). In the last decade of the twentieth century, droughts were responsible for the deaths of as many as 280,000 people, mostly in the world's impoverished regions (UNESCO, 2006a). It is not only a matter of too little water as 'Though our planet is blue, less than 2.5 percent of our water is fresh, less than 33 per cent of fresh water is fluid, less than 1.7 percent of all fluid waters run in our streams. And we have been stopping even these' (Asmal, 2001, p. 1).

Water related diaorrheal diseases were reported as causing 1.8 million deaths in 2002 (UNESCO, 2006a) and 90 per cent of this burden is placed upon children under five (UNESCO, 2006b). In developing countries, this represents one of the two leading causes of death for this age group (Ramakrishna et al., 2000). When coupled with the effects of pollution, this number is even higher. Alarmingly, there is much evidence to suggest that this water crisis will continue to intensify (Brown, 2002; UNESCO, 2006a; World Bank, 2000).

With problems of this magnitude it is easy to become distracted by overwhelmingly bleak facts and figures. Whilst statistics such as those above are useful in emphasizing the extent of this problem, the individuals most affected by this crisis are in danger of becoming invisible in a crowd of identical others. The child who dies of a preventable, curable water-borne disease is reduced to a faceless statistic. Hence, it is important to remember what the statistics represent; this crisis has a human face.

The global water debate

It is in this context that a global debate has emerged around water and water management. An important facet of this debate surrounds the causes of water insecurity, both 'natural' and human caused. Those which have gained most attention in this debate include, but are not limited to, population growth, climate change, land degradation, agricultural practices, landscape modification, pollution, poor management and institutional failure (Pimental et al., 2004; Winpenny, n.d.). The popularized assumption that water scarcity, in particular, is primarily the result of a geographical lottery has been challenged and largely dispelled by many theorists.

Mehta (2006), for example, has applied Sen's (1981) entitlements theory to water. Sen's seminal work, which focussed on food security, challenged established theories by suggesting that famines often take place in regions without food shortages. Rather, famine is often the result of people's inability to 'command food through legal means available in a society' (Sen, 1981, p. 433). Utilising this framework, Mehta argued that a lack of water is often the result not of scarcity, but rather of factors such as water pricing, infrastructure and social exclusion. …

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