Stanford University researchers found that installing piped water near homes promotes gender equality and improves well-being in rural Zambia.
Water is not only essential to life, it is essential to increasing opportunities for women and girls in rural areas around the world. A new study at Stanford University has revealed how piped water is brought closer to remote homes in Zambia to dramatically improve the lives of women and girls, while improving economic opportunities, food security and the well-being of entire families. The research was recently published in Social Sciences and MedicineIn addition, governments and NGOs can incentivize more accurate assessments of the costs and benefits of piped water as an alternative to hard-to-access community water sources.
“Switching from a village well to a piped supply saved nearly 200 hours of fetch time annually for a typical home,” said senior study author Gina Davis, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford and director of the Stanford Water, Health and Health Program. Development. “This is a huge benefit, mostly for women and girls.”
Globally, some 844 million people live without safe, accessible water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, hygiene and food production – the basic pillar of healthy and prosperous societies. Only 12 percent of rural people in sub-Saharan Africa have a water pipe connection to their homes. Instead, families collect water from distant, shared sources, with women and girls largely responsible for performing the arduous and time-consuming work of carrying containers that each average around 40 pounds in weight. Dedicating a large portion of their day to fetching water takes time away from activities such as childcare, housework, hygiene, outdoor work, education and entertainment.
“Addressing this problem provides time and water for women and girls to invest in family health and economic development, in whatever way they see fit,” said lead author James Winter, who recently championed a PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University.
Over the past several decades, national governments and international aid groups have spent hundreds of millions of dollars installing essential water sources, such as wells and hand pumps. However, many of these sources are still far from users’ homes, leading to long trips to fetch water. Previous studies have shown that fetching water can harm mental and physical health, while piped water in the home can increase water for hygiene and livelihoods, improve food production and reduce the spread of infectious diseases.
Nevertheless, despite this finding, piped water installations in sub-Saharan Africa have increased by only two percentage points since 2007. Thus, investing resources in high-quality piped water sources that are significantly closer to rural households can be achieved. To be a more effective way to provide safe, accessible and affordable drinking water for all.
For their study, the researchers examined the less frequently measured aspects of well-being – including saving time, economic opportunity, and food security – that could be gained by increasing access to reliable and easily accessible water. To do so, the team followed four rural villages within the Southern Province. For Zambia that had a similar population and access to schools, markets and healthcare facilities. In the middle of the study, two villages received piped water to their yard, reducing the water source distance to only 15 meters.
Each village was surveyed at the beginning, middle and end of the study, with a team of Zambian interlocutors conducting a total of 434 home surveys. They collected information on time spent fetching water, the amount of water used for housework (cooking and cleaning) and productive uses (garden irrigation, brick making or animal husbandry), and the frequency of these activities. A subset of the respondents wore GPS tracking devices to measure walking speed and distance to water sources. Water meters were used to validate water consumption information.
Researchers found that households with piped water spend 80 percent less time fetching water, which represents a savings of nearly four hours per week. The vast majority of these savings for the time were owed to women and girls, confirming that females benefit disproportionately from piped water interventions. These time savings were spent gardening, doing other housework, caring for children or working outside the home selling products like fried cakes or charcoal. These families also reported being happier, healthier, and less anxious.
Water consumption has also increased, especially for productive purposes. Households with piped water were more than four times more likely to cultivate a garden, and the size of the gardens doubled over the course of the study. Moreover, a greater variety of crops were harvested and households reported selling and consuming this product, with plans to expand sales of their crops in the coming years.
While the benefits are impressive, they may actually reduce the potential time savings for piped water interventions. At the start of the study, families in all four villages lived within a five-minute walk of the primary water source. On average, rural households in Zambia spend about twice that time walking to a water source, with extra time waiting in line and filling water containers. The researchers suggest that introducing piped water near homes elsewhere in Zambia could save the average rural household 32 hours a month, roughly twice the time that households recover in this case.
Of course, piped water infrastructure has higher initial costs, which may discourage government and NGO investments. Poverty is a major constraint when it comes to access to water, and with most of the world’s poorest countries located in sub-Saharan Africa, more research is needed to understand what is required for societies to maintain piped water systems.
“The benefits we see here make it imperative for future work to understand how to operate and maintain these systems in a financially sustainable manner, even in geographically isolated rural communities,” Winter said.