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Water Infrastructure: Participatory Research and Design

The Challenge

Nearly one billion people worldwide lack reliable access to improved water (Hunter et al., 2010). In sub-Saharan Africa, water-fetching is women’s work, and when villages lack water infrastructure, women and girls spend some 40 billion hours annually procuring water (Hutton et al., 2007).

Method: Participatory Research and Design

Because water procurement is women’s work, many women have detailed knowledge of soils and their water yields. This knowledge is vital to civil engineering and development projects—for instance, in determining where to place wells and water taps.

Gendered Innovations:

    1. Tapping into local women’s knowledge has improved the efficiency of water projects. A study of water projects in 13 nations revealed that “equal […] participation by women contributes to the success of community-managed water services” (Postma et al., 2003). Women’s participation also correlates strongly with project sustainability (Gross et al., 2001).

    2. Easy access to improved water supplies can improve school attendance for both girls and boys—hence helping to break the cycle of poverty.

Go to Full Case Study
The Challenge
Gendered Innovation 1: Integrating Women’s Knowledge as a Resource into Civil Engineering
Method: Participatory Research and Design
Gendered Innovation 2: Improving Girls’ and Boys’ Education
Method: Analyzing how Sex and Gender Interact
Next Steps

The Challenge

Water, sanitation, and hygiene-related illness results in 1.8 million deaths per year worldwide (Connell, 2010; CDC, 2006). The United Nations has specifically addressed the need for water infrastructure—both improved water supplies and wastewater systems—in its strategy for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (UN, 2010).

The United Nations has found that “in most countries, women are, in fact, the primary stakeholders in the water and sanitation sectors, and are the primary providers of water for domestic consumption” (UN, 2008). Statistically, women and girls spend significantly more time acquiring water than men and boys, as shown below for rural areas in several nations (chart produced with data from de Moria et al., 2007; Wodon et al., 2006). This creates extreme “time poverty” which keeps young people (particularly girls) out of school, reduces the amount care that children receive, and increases disease burdens (Costa et al., 2009). In areas where women lack political representation, developing water infrastructure is often a low spending priority (Sorenson et al., 2011). Observational studies of village governance in rural India show that women village council heads tend to prioritize spending on water infrastructure, while men council heads tend to prioritize spending on education (Chattopadhyay et al., 2004).

For children, particularly girls, time spent fetching water is time spent away from school. This relationship is so strong that a household’s distance from the nearest source of improved water reliably predicts whether girls in that household will attend school. Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) considers water infrastructure critical to providing universal primary education (the second Millennium Development Goal) and has reported in international studies that “Providing safe drinking-water and latrines at school (particularly latrines for girls) will encourage primary school attendance […] saving time that children would otherwise spend collecting water […] the same interventions can save children from missing school as a result of illness or injury” (Prüss-Üstün et al., 2006). Based upon the connection between education and improved water, WHO has projected that securing improved water supplies for half the people who lack access would reduce school absenteeism by nearly 80 million student-days worldwide—mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America (Hutton et al., 2004).

Gendered Innovation 1: Integrating Women’s Knowledge as a Resource into Civil Engineering

Tapping into women’s expertise in a project’s planning stage has led to more successful water infrastructure. This case study draws from the work of Jenna Davis, Stanford University. Examples of gendered innovations in water infrastructure include:

    India: The Indian government responded to the 1993 Marathwada earthquake by recruiting women to leadership positions in the relief effort. Women’s local knowledge about water needs helped engineers increase the technical quality of water infrastructure. Further, as “primary stakeholders” in the infrastructure, these women were able to combat corruption in water projects—confronting politicians who accepted bribes in allocating subsidies and contractors who overstated the scope and costs of their projects (UN, 2008; Yonder et al., 2005)—see Method.

Method: Participatory Research and Design

Western-style science and engineering often draw a strict line between technology developers and technology users, particularly if those users are in developing countries. Participatory research, by contrast, involves community members—such as future users of water technologies—as active members of research and engineering teams (O’Fallon et al., 2002).

Divisions of labor—in which certain groups within a society tend to perform certain types of work—lead to divisions of knowledge. People responsible for a given task will develop knowledge specific to that task. In the developing world, women are primarily responsible for managing water resources—obtaining water, transporting it, and using it for agricultural as well as domestic purposes (NationMaster Labor Statistics, 2010). As such, women develop knowledge that is important to water infrastructure development.

By analyzing knowledge created through gendered divisions of labor, national governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other groups can better engage those segments of a population who hold the knowledge important to a particular development project. Participatory research has enriched engineers’ understanding of community needs while simultaneously improving the success of water projects. Participatory research helps “ensure that communities possess the sense of ownership and ability to maintain the water system” (Suzuki, 2010).


    Malawi: The United Nations has supported water infrastructure projects in Malawi since 1981. In 1988, an assessment showed that these projects had failed largely because women were excluded from decision-making and their knowledge went unused. As a result, program administrators—under pressure from the UN—recruited women. Including women’s knowledge produced significant gains in the quality of water infrastructure (Tenthani, 2002).

    Tanzania: In the Kilombero district of Tanzania, a NGO backed by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) made a commitment to including more local women in decision-making capacities, especially in choosing locations for water wells. A water well located by a male-only committee had dried up; the NGO has been more successful by accessing women’s knowledge of the relationship between soil conditions and well productivity (Tissafi, 2004).

Gendered Innovation 2: Improving Girls’ and Boys’ Education

In the realm of water infrastructure, tapping into women’s local knowledges has produced dramatic benefits for communities as a whole in terms of health, safety, education, and income.

    1. Education: Multinational studies show that water infrastructure projects broadly improve education levels for children of both sexes, especially in rural areas (Koolwal et al., 2010). The biggest gains are in girls’ education because water-carrying is gendered as female work—but gains occur in boys’ education also. A water supply project in Morocco increased overall rural primary school attendance (for both girls and boys) by 16% over four years. Because the water improvements reduced the time girls spent carrying water, it also helped to close the education gap between girls and boys—girls’ attendance rates increased by 21% over the same period (World Bank, 2003).

Method: Analyzing how Sex and Gender Interact

Lack of sanitation—the other half of the water infrastructure equation—can also disadvantage girls. This problem is created through both biological sex differences and cultural gender differences.

Menstruation increases girls’ need for clean latrines and privacy at school. In Uganda, for example, dropout rates for girls rise dramatically around ages 12-13, consistent with menarche. Only 8% of Ugandan schools have a sufficient number of latrines for the number of students attending, and of those schools that do, only one-third have sex-segregated facilities (Uganda Ministry of Finance, Planning, and Economic Development, 2005).

Gendered beliefs and norms also block girls from attending school. In many countries, including Uganda, menstruation is a taboo subject. Parents may believe that it is no longer “necessary or appropriate for a daughter to continue to attend school past puberty” (Kirk et al., 2006). These taboos are strongest in the places that most lack water infrastructure—poor rural areas—and are a major barrier to girls’ education (Sommer et al., 2010).


    2. Health: Water infrastructure projects broadly improve community and women’s health:

      • By reducing diarrheal disease, especially among children (Jalan et al., 2003). Because of this, the World Bank has identified water and sanitation systems as the single largest factor for improving health in developing nations (Zwane et al., 2007).

      • By reducing stress injury and high caloric cost from the physical burden of carrying large loads of water (Kavuma, 2010; Costa et al., 2009), as well as risks of assaults and attacks, road casualties and accidents (Sorenson et al., 2011).

      • By enhancing the quality of childcare when mothers’ time is freed up from carrying water. This results in improved nutrition and education (Alderman, 2007).

    3. Sustainability: Projects in which women are trained to maintain and repair water infrastructure (in some cases as volunteer work and in other cases as paid labor) and in which women contribute their knowledge have been highly successful in increasing the reliability of improved water sources (Hoque et al., 1991). Better access to water for all, and to education for girls, improves access of adult women to income generating activities, contributing to economic sustainability.


In sub-Saharan Africa, water-fetching is women’s work, and when villages lack water infrastructure, women and girls spend some 40 billion hours annually procuring water. Because of this gendered division of labor, many women have detailed knowledge of soils and their water yields. Using methods of participatory research to tap into local women’s knowledge has improved the efficiency of water projects. Re-engineering water supplies has the added benefit of improving school attendance—especially for girls—and helping to break the cycle of poverty.

Next Steps

The benefits of high-quality water infrastructure are substantial: good infrastructure can improve education, gender equality, community health, and economic stability. Important strategies for continued development include:

    1. Further research on factors in water-gathering and usage which may be influenced by gender. The risks of water-carrying are not limited to neck and back injuries; road traffic casualties and assaults also occur. Gender roles additionally influence priorities for water usage (Sorenson et al., 2011).

    2. Ensuring women’s participation at the community level in water councils. Some governments and granting agencies encourage sex balance in decision-making and administrative bodies, often through quotas, for example requiring one-third of council members to be female (Ballington, 2004). However, “fixing the numbers” of women in council positions will not in itself ensure the best and most equitable outcomes; equal consideration of men’s and women’s perspectives is necessary. Gender bias—along with other forms of social bias, such as those related to caste, age, religion, wealth, etc.—must be confronted (Singh, 2006).

    3. Developing multiple-use water services (MUS). Current water infrastructures are designed to fulfill immediate needs of drinking, cooking, and basic sanitation like hand washing—but not for income-generating activities. MUS are designed to support economically-productive uses of domestic water, and have enabled rural women to expand into income-generating activities, such as maintaining kitchen-gardens, raising chickens (sometimes even cattle), preserving food, and manufacturing vegetable oils (Mikhail et al., 2008). In urban settings, MUS support new domestic enterprises ranging from flour milling to pottery-making (Verhagen et al., 2006).

Works Cited

Alderman, H. (2007). Improving Nutrition through Community Growth Promotion: Longitudinal Study of the Nutrition and Early Child Development Program in Uganda. World Development, 35 (8), 1376-1389.

Ballington, J. (ed.) (2004). The Implementation of Quotas: African Experiences. Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

Centers for Disease Control (CDC). (2006). Safe Water System: A Low-Cost Technology for Safe Drinking Water. World Water Forum Update, March, 1-2.

Chattopadhyay, R., & Duflo, E. (2004). Women as Policy Makers: Evidence from a Randomized Policy Experiment in India. Econometrica, 72 (5), 1409-1443. 

Connell, C. (2010). From Floods to Drought: Delivering Safe Water. U.S. Department of State Bureau of International Information Programs, August 23.

Costa, J., Hailu, D., Silva, E., & Tsukada, R. (2009). The Implications of Water and Electricity Supply for the Time Allocation of Women in Rural Ghana, Working Paper. International Policy Center for Inclusive Growth.

de Moria, A., Fulford, A., Kabatereine, N., Kazibwe, F., Ouma, J., Dunne, D., & Booth, M. (2007). Microgeographical and Tribal Variations in Water Contact and Schistosoma mansoni Exposure within a Ugandan Fishing Community. Tropical Medicine and International Health, 12 (6), 724-735.

Gross, B., van Wijik, C., & Mukherjee, N. (2001). Linking Sustainability with Demand, Gender, and Poverty: A Study in Community-Managed Water Supply Projects in 15 Countries. Delft, Netherlands: IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre.

Hoque, B., Aziz, K., Hasan, Z., & Patwart, M. (1991). Maintaining Village Water Pumps by Women Volunteers in Bangladesh. Health Policy and Planning, 6 (2), 176-180.

Hunter, P., MacDonals, A., & Carter, R. (2010). Water Supply and Health. Public Library of Science (PLoS) Medicine, 7 (11), 1-9.

Hutton, G., Haller, L., & Bartram, J. (2007). Global Cost-Benefit Analysis of Water Supply and Sanitation Interventions. World Health Organization Journal of Water and Health, 5 (4), 481-502.

Hutton, G., & Haller, L. (2004). Evaluation of the Costs and Benefits of Water and Sanitation Improvements at the Global Level. Geneva: World Health Organization (WHO).

Jalan, J., & Ravallion, M. (2003). Does Piped Water Reduce Diarrhea for Children in Rural India? Journal of Econometrics, 112 (1), 153-173.

Kavuma, R. (2010). Harsh Weather Damages Katine School Latrines. The Guardian, March 3.

Kirk, J., & Sommer, M. (2006). Menstruation and Body Awareness: Linking Girls’ Health with Girls’ Education. Netherlands: Royal Tropical Institute.

Koolwal, G., & Van de Walle, D. (2010). Access to Water, Women’s Work and Child Outcomes. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Network Gender and Development Unit.

Mikhail, M., & Yoder, R. (2008). Multiple-Use Water Service Implementation in Nepal and India: Experience and Lessons for Scale-up. Lakewood, Colorado: International Development Enterprises (IDE), Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF), and International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

NationMaster Labor Statistics. (2010). Labor Statistics By Country, Agricultural Workers, Percent Female, Most Recent. Rapid Intelligence Online.

O’Fallon, L., & Dearry, A. (2002). Community-Based Participatory Research as a Tool to Advance Environmental Health Sciences. Environmental Health Perspectives, 110 (2), 155-159.

Postma, L., van Wijk, C., & Otte, C. (2003). Participatory Quantification in the Water and Sanitation Sector. Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) Notes, 47, 13-18.

Prüss-Üstün, A., & Corvalán, C. (2006). Preventing Disease through Healthy Environments: Towards an Estimate of the Environmental Burden of Disease. Geneva: World Health Organization (WHO).

Singh, N. (2006). Women’s Participation in Local Water Governance: Understanding Institutional Contradictions. Gender, Technology and Development, 10, 61-76.

Sommer, M. (2010). Where the Education System and Women’s Bodies Collide: The Social and Health Impacts of Girls’ Experiences of Menstruation and Schooling in Tanzania. Journal of Adolescence, 33 (4), 521-529.

Sorenson, S., Morssink, C., & Campos, P. (2011). Safe Access to Safe Water in Low-Income Countries: Water Fetching in Current Times. Social Science and Medicine, 72 (9), 1522-1526.

Suzuki, R. (2010). Post-Project Assessment and Follow-Up Support for Community Managed Rural Water Systems in Panama. Thesis, Environmental Engineering, Michigan Technological University.

Tenthani, R. (2002). Sisters are Tapping It for Themselves: What has Gender Got to Do with Keeping Water Clean and Safe in Rural Malawi? New Internationalist, 352, December.

Tissafi, M. (2004). Gute-Politik fordert die Entwicklung. Zürich: Schweiz Global.

Uganda Ministry of Finance, Planning, and Economic Development. (2005). Poverty Eradication Action Plan, 2004/5 – 2007/8. Washington, D.C.: International Monetary Fund (IMF) Publication Services.

United Nations (UN). (2010). The Millennium Development Goals Report. New York: UN Publications.

United Nations (UN). (2008). Gender-Disaggregated Data on Water and Sanitation: Expert Group Meeting Report. New York: UN Publications.

Verhagen, J., & Bhatt, M. (2006). Multiple Use of Water in Urban Areas: A Case Study in Bhuj, Gujarat, India. Delft, The Netherlands: International Water and Sanitation Center.

Wodon, Q., & Blackden, C. (Eds.) (2006). Gender, Time Use, and Poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. Washington, DC: World Bank.

World Bank (2003). Morocco Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Project: Implementation Completion Report (Report No. 25917).

Yonder, A., Akcar, S., & Gopalan, P. (2005). Women’s Participation in Disaster Relief and Recovery. New York: Population Council Publications.

Zwane, A., & Kremer, M. (2007). What Works in Fighting Diarrheal Diseases in Developing Countries? A Critical Review. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

woman mapping water well Nearly one billion people worldwide lack reliable access to water. In sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls spend some 40 billion hours annually carrying water.

Gendered Innovation through Participatory Research:

Here the gendered innovation is tapping into this local knowledge. Because carrying water is women's work, many women have detailed knowledge of soils and the water they yield—knowledge that is vital to civil engineers when placing wells and water taps. Here (right) we see a woman in Ghana mapping well sites. Such community participation vastly improves water services.

And it's a potential win-win: when girls aren't carrying water, they tend to go to school, and potentially break the cycle of poverty.



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