From Egypt to the United States to South Africa and beyond, State neglect is a crime against humanity

What is neglect? More specifically, what is State neglect? In the past week, people have been reported to die of neglect at the hands of the State in Egypt, the United States and South Africa. What does that mean? Too often, the story of neglect is recounted as one of oversight, an omission, an act of forgetfulness, but State neglect is public policy, and its consequences can be catastrophic, as this week has shown.

According to the Egyptian Network for Human Rights, ENHR, since the beginning of 2023, twelve people have died of `medical neglect’ while held in prisons and detentions centers. Last week, Madyan Hussein and Sameh Mansour died of neglect. They were not forgotten in a corner somewhere, they, as so many others who have died while incarcerated were effectively executed.

Last year, in Atlanta, Georgia, Lashawn Thompson died in the Fulton County Jail. Lashawn Thompson was 35 years old, Black, living with schizophrenia, homeless. When he died in a bedbug infested bed, his family demanded an independent investigation. This week, the autopsy was concluded: “The death of Mr. Lashawn Thompson resulted from severe neglect evidenced by untreated schizophrenia, poor living conditions, poor grooming, extensive and severe body insect infestation, dehydration, and rapid weight loss”. “Mr. Thompson was neglected to death”. Neglected to death.

Hammanskraal is a rural community under the supervision of the Tshwane Metropolitan Authority, in northern Gauteng, in South Africa. This week, as of last count, 17 people in Hammanskraal died of cholera, and 100 have been taken ill. Hammanskraal is in the news this week for the `neglect’ that led to this disaster.

Yesterday, in the Mail & Guardian, Ozayr Patel wrote, “South Africa was long known for its clean water, but not for at least the past two decades. Now that a cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal has, at the time of writing, claimed the lives of 17 people and left about 100 ill, the water crisis is making headlines …. The M&G has covered numerous stories from around the country about water treatment plants being neglected, not working, and sewage flowing down streets, into people’s yards and into rivers and streams. Now that 17 people have died, will something be done? Or are we more likely to see results if more people die?” Patel’s account partly relies on Anja du Plessis’ research. Earlier in the week, in a piece entitled “Cholera in South Africa: a symptom of two decades of continued sewage pollution and neglect”, du Plessis wrote, “The unacceptable level for operations indicates that the operation of treatment systems and risk to infrastructure is of concern and not efficient. The data emphasises the non-functioning and overall neglect of wastewater treatment works.” In the Daily Maverick, Thamsanqa D Malinga agrees, “Hammanskraal is the straw that will break the camel’s back, the one scandal that has just helped shine the light on the neglect of the poor. Its advantage is that it falls under the control of one of the biggest metros in the country — and our capital city.”

Meanwhile, elsewhere in South Africa, “Apart from the recent spike in cholera deaths caused by dirty water, residents of Mokopane in Limpopo fear also contracting water-borne diseases such as malaria and typhoid. And they accused their municipality, Mogalakwena, of neglecting them.” The neglect was elsewhere described as `reluctance’.

What is neglect? Under Abuse and neglect of children, the Code of the Commonwealth of Virginia declares, “Any parent, guardian, or other person responsible for the care of a child under the age of 18 who by willful act or willful omission or refusal to provide any necessary care for the child’s health causes or permits serious injury to the life or health of such child is guilty of a Class 4 felony.” Elsewhere, in its discussion of Abuse and neglect of vulnerable adults, the same Code defines neglect: “`Neglect’ means the knowing and willful failure by a responsible person to provide treatment, care, goods, or services which results in injury to the health or endangers the safety of a vulnerable adult.”

What happened, and is happening, in Egyptian prisons and detention centers, in the Fulton County Jail, in Hammanskraal is knowing and willful failure by those responsible to provide treatment, care, goods or services, resulting in injury, endangerment, harm, and, finally, death. Yes, Hammanskraal was years in the making, and the residents of Hammanskraal protested the violence being done to them … to no avail. Don’t call it neglect, call it murder, committed by the State, call it a crime against humanity.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

Newark, New Jersey, is the next Flint!

While Flint, Michigan, is still waiting for clean water, another water crisis is brewing, this time in a predominantly Black community in the largest city in New Jersey, Newark. It has been an ongoing fight between residents in the state and the city itself.

Newark school teachers and an environmental organization are preparing to file a lawsuit against both Newark and New Jersey, claiming that a lead tainted water problem has not been resolved. While the city denies the assertion (calling it “absolutely and outrageously false” and a politically motivated call to action in the heat of a mayoral campaign), state and district officials shut off water fountains in 30 schools in the city, in response to the testing that showed elevated levels of lead contaminating the water in the schools.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a federal report has noted that Newark’s lead levels are among the highest in the country over the last three years for water systems serving over 50,000 people. The NRDC also alleges that Newark unlawfully denied its public record requests that sought information about the water testing.

In a 2017 study on the drinking water, about 20 percent of samples came in above the Safe Drinking Water Act standards for lead concentrations. The highest ten percent of those samples averaged 26 parts per billion (ppb); the federal limit is 15 ppb and one address tested more than 9 times the standard.

Not only Newark is suffering from dangerous amounts of lead in their water, the whole state is affected. At least one sample from four out of five public water systems in New Jersey contained lead between 2013 and 2015.

It is not just lead threatening the state’s water supply. A cancer-causing chemical, PFAS (fluorinated compounds, including perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, found in food packaging and nonstick products), is more pervasive in New Jersey than any other state in the country. From 2013-2016, testing required by the EPA showed that 16 million Americans were being served water containing PFOA. 1.6 million New Jerseyans are drinking PFOA infected water, the most in any single state. PFOA is a manmade chemical and doesn’t breakdown naturally in the environment, leading scientists to believe that every American has some amount of the chemical in their bloodstream.

Sources for the fluorinated compounds in New Jersey include:
Naval Weapons Station Earle, (Monmouth County);
Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, (Ocean County);
Solvay Specialty Polymer and Arkema, West Deptford (Gloucester County);
Dupont’s Chambers Works facility, Pennsville (Salem County).

Firefighting foam is blamed for the contamination in military sites. Even though the foam is no longer used in training, it is very likely that the chemicals have remained in the environment, and more importantly, in the water. In November, the New Jersey Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would institute enforceable standards for PFOA in drinking water at 14 parts per trillion, which is a stricter threshold than the federal government (at 70 parts per trillion enacted in 2016).

The moral of the story is: One does not need to look at red states for crisis in water contamination; these problems extend beyond red and blue states. New Jersey failed its citizens in providing clean and safe drinking water, and it will continue to fail until politicians are held accountable for the abysmal response to our poisoned drinking water.

This is a bottle of water from the tap.


(Photo Credit: WDEL)


Florida’s special hell for women, the Lowell Correctional Institution, ran out of water

Florida built a special hell for women, the Lowell Correctional Institution. In 2015, Lowell housed, or better caged, 2696 women, surpassing the Central California Women’s Facility and thus becoming the largest women’s prison in the United States. From the start, in 1956, to today, the place has been a nightmare: overcrowded, rampant with staff abuse of prisoners and institutional abuse of staff, severely under resourced, violent, toxic and lethal. In 2014, Michelle Tierney, Latandra Ellington, Regina A. Cooper, and Affricka G. Jean died “under suspicious circumstances.” They did not die; they were killed by the institution. From the outset, death-in-life has been the everyday norm for Lowell. Last week, Lowell hit a new low, no water for days. The Lowell Correctional Institution, hellhole of inhumane practices, became the Lowell Correctional Institution, hellhole of `subhuman’ conditions.

Here’s the official version: Lightning struck a water pump on Saturday, July 8. It shut down water and a geothermal line, which meant no water and no `air conditioning’. On Monday, July 10, the Florida Department of Correction released a statement: “Storm damage over the weekend caused maintenance issues that effected the well pumps and geothermal line at Lowell Correctional Institution. Institution maintenance staff responded immediately and have been on scene trying to resolve the issues with assistance from the local fire department and contractors. The geothermal line has been repaired and a replacement pump for the well is expected to arrive today. All inmates have access to drinking water. Toilets and sinks are operational using non-potable water being brought in to the institution.”

On Thursday, July 13, The Miami Herald reported that drinking water was still unavailable, and would be unavailable for at least another three days.

Lowell Correctional Institution doesn’t have air conditioning. Instead it relies on geo-thermal cooling. The State admits that the system is faulty, at best. Prison staff say the system doesn’t work at all in a number of the dormitories. Now, it officially doesn’t work anywhere. Meanwhile, Lowell has been cited repeatedly for unhygienic conditions, including worms and mold in the showers and sinks. Last week, for at least three days, the showers and sinks were officially shut off. Toilets were also `inoperational’, which prisoners explained means toilets overflowing with feces.

One staff member said, “It’s a disgusting mess; the women are living in subhuman conditions.” Another added, “I don’t understand why the health department doesn’t get involved. There’s been a constant problem here with sanitation. Toilets that don’t work — sometimes only one works for 160 inmates.”

Florida maintains that the situation in Lowell Correctional Institution is under control and just fine. Florida can make that claim because the situation in Lowell Correctional Institution has been subhuman for years, and who complained? Prisoners, their families and friends, staff members, and the occasional activist. Where’s the hue and cry over the abysmal conditions in the nation’s largest women’s prison? Florida built a special hell for women, Lowell Correctional Institution, and really, who cares?


(Photo Credit: Miami Herald / Emily Michot)

Our Lives Do Matter! Women Fight for Water in Somkhele and Fuleni!


“We have been reduced to animals now. Our lives do not matter, that is why no one cares about our suffering over water,” says Mrs Nkhosi from Somkhele. “The water taps are mere decorations now, nothing ever comes out.” On August 12, women representing the communities of Somkhele and Fuleni gathered at a Women’s Water Assembly in Embonambi Kwa Zulu Natal. The Water Assembly was a critical moment for women to reflect on a participatory action research process on women’s experiences of water scarcity in both communities. Women activists also shared findings from the research with key stakeholders, including representatives from the local municipality and WoMin allies – Centre for Environmental Rights (CER)Earthlore, and the Global Environmental Trust (GET), and developed a set of clear demands to inform their strategies going forward.

“I would like to ask the Municipality, councillors and officials how they feel that they bath every day and have safe water and my family and I do not.” – Medical, from Somkhele

The absence of water…

Water is a critical issue in drought-stricken communities impacted by heavy coal mining and other extractives industries—it’s an even bigger issue for women. “Water is big issue for women because water is for them life itself as it touches on the everyday facets in their lives. Women are socially responsible for ensuring that the family has water,” says activist, Nyonde Ntswana. “Without water women cannot have livelihoods, no farming, no livestock, without water they cannot work as they have to walk long distances for look for water and have to time to engage in productive work. Without water they cannot prepare food and keep themselves and the household clean. The absence of water is the absence of a productive life for a woman.”

The communities of Somkhele and Fuleni are especially vulnerable to the challenges of water scarcity due to drought and coal mining activities in the area. Somkhele is situated where the Somkhele (Tendele) Coal Mine, a subsidiary of the Petmin group, has been operating for over 10 years. Nearby Fuleni is the proposed site for a highly contested coal mining project under Ibutho Coal. Some of the core issues surfaced in the research include:

  • The long distances women walk to fetch water on a daily basis, sometimes spending up to six hours – which impacts women’s livelihoods and leaves them extremely vulnerable to sexual harassment and rape as they travel long distances to isolated areas in search of water.
  • How unsafe the water collected is, despite efforts to purify it such as adding a bleach (JIK), cement and keeping it standing overnight, many often fall ill after drinking the water and women are further burdened with caring for the sick because of a highly unequal existing division of labour which assigns them primary responsibility for the care of the sick.
  • The scarcity and pollution of water has led to inadequate nutrition and rising hunger as most families can no longer engage in farming to grow variety of food as they previously used to and most of the livestock has since died.
  • Inadequate delivery of public water supplies by the local municipality, meaning families have to spend ZAR600 for just 5000 litres of water provided by private companies. This is a clear violation of the government’s Free Water Policy to these communities who are then forced to rely on contaminated water to survive.
  • Kwa Zulu Natal is currently experiencing a severe drought and most parts including where Somkhele and Fuleni fall have been declared Disaster Zones by the government.
  • Women in the communities have tried to engage with community leaders such as councillors and indunas over access to water but have met many challenges along the way. Some of the indunas do not take women’s demands seriously and see the women’s organising as a ‘challenge’ to authority.

At the assembly, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) conducted an information session to give women a framework for understanding what rights citizens within these communities have when it comes to water access.

Building a collective voice for concrete change

The assembly, supported by WoMin, was a powerful moment for women from the Somkhele and Fuleni communities to share their experiences and build solidarity so they can mobilise and co-strategise going forward. Given the political moment in South Africa, women are poised to raise their voices and use their collective power to push the government, local leadership and corporate interests to listen. “How do the politicians expect us to vote for them yet they have neglected us in this manner,” declares Sthoko from Fuleni. “Come election time we will show them our anger over this water issue.”


(This first appeared, in slightly different form, here. Thanks to Maggie Mapondera and to WoMin for this collaboration.)

(Photo Credit: WoMin)

World Toilet Day is WORLD Toilet Day, not developing world toilet day

November 19, 2012: it’s World Toilet Day. Around the world, one in three women has no access to a safe toilet. The situation, especially for women, is desperate. It’s a global crisis, driven in many instances by taboos and stigma and in others by public policy. From Uganda, Mozambique, India, and the Solomon Islands to Mongolia and Vietnam to Haiti to Bolivia to South Africa and Kenya and Zambia and Ghana to Sri Lanka to Ethiopia, the situation is serious.  As Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization, the real WTO, and one of the initiators of World Toilet Day has argued, it’s a human tragedy.

Women’s lack of access to safe toilets is a human tragedy everywhere. Not just in developing countries.

Last week, 20 women U.S. Senators gathered for an event. Before the event, they headed off to the women’s bathroom, only to discover there were only two stalls. While much levity has been generated by “first time ever traffic jam at the women’s Senators’ bathroom”, by women Senators hitting up against the porcelain ceiling, the Senators’ lack of access to a safe, clean, available toilet points to a more dire situation, in the United States.

Women prisoners often lack access to safe, clean, available toilets. Women living with disabilities who have been institutionalized often lack access to safe, clean, available toilets. In fact, women living with disabilities out on the streets often lack access to safe, clean, available toilets. Women and girls in schools often find going to the bathroom a hazardous journey.

Women in traditionally all-male fields often lack access to safe, clean, available toilets. For example, women in the building trades often describe “limited access to sanitary toilets.”

Many women farm workers find no toilets in the fields, and when there is one, it’s often a site of sexual harassment. They find the housing provided to farm workers has a similar lack of functioning toilets, as well as a lack of functioning sewage and potable water.

And of course, across the United States, when landlords look to move tenants out in the name of `development’, the first line of attack is maintenance. Along with failure, or refusal, to repair public spaces, such as hallways and lobbies, landlords use broken plumbing in their `assault by blight’. Across the United States, women, mostly women of color, living in targeted neighborhoods struggle with lack of access to safe, clean, available toilets.

World Toilet Day is WORLD Toilet Day, not developing world toilet day.

(Image Credit: United Nations)

West Virginia Women: “Our Hair Can Grow Back. The Mountains Can’t.”

“Our hair can grow back,” environmental activist Vivian Stockman told me yesterday. “The mountains can’t.”

Last week, Stockman joined twenty other West Virginia women (and a few men) in silently shaving their heads at the West Virginia state capital. This week, seven more joined them at a protest in DC.  To Stockman, they are acts of mourning – “deeply personal” sacrificial actions symbolic of the pain that mountain top removal has brought to Appalachian communities.

West Virginians are no strangers to sacrifice.  Author Denise Giardinia wrote after the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining disaster that West Virginia, my home state, has long been a “national sacrifice area.”  The health, safety, and environmental risks to mining communities have often been overshadowed by the fact that the rest of the country relies on the coal that comes from the region.

So now, women from West Virginia are making visible that sense of sacrifice – with their bodies.

The idea belonged to Marilyn Mullens who said that it came to her in a night of restless sleep.  Mullens explained that she wanted to lead a tribute to the hundreds of mountains and thousands of communities that have been damaged or destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining. “We’ve gone through all the official channels of every level of our state government,” she said.  “We’ve been to DC.  Nothing is being done.”

Mullens pointed out that we live in a culture in which hair is deeply important to many people, especially women.  By removing hers, she is standing in solidarity both with the mountains that have been blown up and with the people in mining communities who have lost their health.  Mullens, who is from Southern West Virginia, knows the human effects of mountaintop removal coal mining firsthand. Her community has been flooded multiple times (mountaintop removal can lead to increased erosion), and the foundation of her home has been badly damaged.

There is an Appalachian saying that what you do to the land, you do to the people.  And it’s true – just ask people living near mountaintop mining who face cancer rates of almost 15% (compared to the 9.4% for other parts of Appalachia).

Or ask the parents of the five-year-old girl whose photo recently caused such a stir in a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources. The photo, submitted by award-winning environmental activist Marie Gunnoe, depicts a child in a bathtub full of brown tap water. Gunnoe was clearly trying to show the health impacts on communities near West Virginia mountaintop removal sites.  It is a photo that everyone in the country should see.

But the photo was not allowed to be shown at the hearing, and afterwards Gunnoe was pulled into a side room and questioned by the U.S. Capitol Police for nearly an hour on suspicion of child pornography.

As Aaron Bady wrote in the Huffington Post, the real obscenity is not the photo of a child bathing – it’s that the communities have no choice but to bathe their children in polluted water.

Denise Giardinia was right when she wrote that West Virginia is a national sacrifice area.  But women in West Virginia are coming together to hold up photos, shave off their hair, and make people look at what kind of sacrifice is happening.  What you do to the land, you do to the people – but the people can organize.

For information on how to get involved, check out the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition


(Photo Credit: Between the Lines)

Women and Water: Fitting into the Discussion

A recent lecture on water as the oil of the 21st century brought to mind several interesting points about where women fit into the discussion of water scarcity – or even if they have a place in the discussion.

Dr. Kellogg Schwab, one of the speakers on the panel, said that water is the nexus of energy, food, stability, and health. He went on to discuss the importance of looking at water scarcity from an interdisciplinary approach.  This is a great start to a discussion of water scarcity – not only is water the nexus of several different areas of life, it is also the nexus of several different disciplines.  With the acknowledgement of it being the tie between so many different areas should come the acknowledgement of water being the tie between several disciplines.  Of course, an interdisciplinary approach in this context means engineering, economics, public health, public policy and development.  Where, then, do women fit into this discussion?

In three out of the four presentations, women were cited as examples of how water scarcity can affect people – the tired statistics of how far women walk to gather so much water, or the impact of water scarcity on girls’ education.  But women were not included in the interdisciplinary approach – no women’s studies, no human rights or sociology perspective.  It is a discussion that, according to those involved, must still be dominated by science, or the mastery of men over nature.  To be truly interdisciplinary, we need to look at the gender norms and power dynamics behind how and why women use water they way they do.

A second interesting point came up when discussing agriculture’s use of water.  Agriculture uses 70 percent of the water supply, while household uses only use about 10 percent.  Yet women, who are often portrayed as the most affected by water scarcity (and as the reasons for working on water scarcity), are generally in charge of the domestic uses of water.  So if women are in charge of domestic uses of water and not agricultural ones, and agriculture is the biggest user of water, then why are women used to pitch the need for action on water issues?  Should the focus be on reducing the amount of water that agriculture uses?  (I recognize that there have been huge advancements on this point, however, the point is that it is not as widely known nor as widely used as a reason for acting on water scarcity).

Often, advocates for water issues discuss the need for a holistic view of water.  To be truly holistic, we need to be exploring all sides of water scarcity – including the gender implications or the gendered uses of water.  The division of labor among people, and the reasons that certain people do certain tasks, has huge implications for water use and scarcity.  The security issues involved in women’s access to clean water and sanitation are also intertwined with the gender norms of society.  To really address the issue of water scarcity, those issues have to be discussed as well.

Finally, the use of women as the reason for action strikes me as wrong as well.  It brings to mind Laura Bush’s advocacy for women in the Middle East just in time to help justify former President Bush’s push for war in the area.  Using women as justification for a larger goal is playing on sympathies of Western women for women in developing countries – ‘oh those poor women!  We must help them!’  Absolutely their situation is unfair and awful (I wouldn’t want to walks miles carrying a jug of water), but to look at it just on the surface misses some of the point.  Why is it just women carrying the water, and what role do men play in water scarcity?

This attitude also walks a fine line between sympathy and blame.  One of the presentations discussed maternal and child health initiatives that focused on increasing the practice of handwashing.  This is the perfect example – it is very easy to slip into thinking ‘how do these women not know to wash hands after going to the bathroom?’  I commend Koki Agarwal for not discussing it that way, but rather focusing on how they were targeting the message and how helpful it was in reducing child mortality.  But this is a side effect, if you will, of using women to pitch water scarcity.

I want to see a discussion that is truly interdisciplinary.  The other disciplines of economics, policy, and engineering are all important, but there needs to be a social context given to this discussion that allows women to not just be the subject of the problem.  We need a truly holistic dialogue here.


(Photo Credit:

Women and Water: Can You Own Water?

I have been recently working on a paper discussing the ownership of water, assuming for my argument that you can somehow lay claim to water.  Now that the paper is finished, I am free to ponder whether or not you can actually lay claim to water.

Water is not something static.  It is constantly moving, flowing, and changing.  It doesn’t stay in the same place at any time, regardless of whether you remove it from the river/stream/ocean or not.  It evaporates back into the sky and returns to the water cycle.

So how can someone lay a claim to water?

One way that people have done this is to create riparian rights – the rights to the land surrounding water.  Thus I can own land around a lake and have a claim on the water in the lake, but I still cannot own water.

Ownership implies some kind of control over the object that is owned – if I own something I can control access to it, or how it is maintained.  But is control over water really the goal? Controlling water does not guarantee the state in which water will be kept – it does not stop the water from becoming polluted.  Furthermore, control implies some kind of dominance over the object. What is forgotten, however, is that water cannot be controlled.  Tsunamis, hurricanes, and floods are all evidence as to how much more powerful water is than humans.  When people have attempted to constrain water, time and time again it has overpowered the constraints.

Frank Trelease uses the thought experiment that if you buy a watch, you have ownership of the watch. And if you have ownership of the watch, you can protect the watch and demand damages if it is broken.  To him, if I own water, then I can seek any damages for the pollution of that water.  And in order to own water, I must buy it.  Whether that buying is in the riparian sense, where one buys the land surrounding water and is given claim to the water, or in the infrastructure sense, where one buys the water that is pumped to one’s house, is hard to determine.  However, his conception of ownership implies that if one owns something, one can defend it. But what if the resource could defend itself?

Christopher Stone, in his essay ‘Should the Trees have Standing?’ discusses whether or not natural objects like trees and rivers should be allowed to have legal standing.  In the process, he says that if we are to view rivers as to be something that can be wronged, then we must also hold the rivers accountable for their impact on the earth: namely the impact of floods.  The river should be made to pay damages for its destruction (through the use of a legal guardian and a fund created in the name of the river).  Through this understand, rivers and streams would not be owned, couldn’t be owned, as ownership would deny them their rights as objects of legal standing.  Rather water would be borrowed from the river/stream and would have to be returned in good condition.

Furthermore, if water can be owned, than water can be sold.  J.H. Dales discusses the importance of acknowledging water ownership so that it can be priced effectively for the market.  His argument is that if water can be owned, than it can be treated as a material good with a fixed pricing system, rather than affixing an arbitrary price to water, as had been done previously.

But to return to the original question, how can someone lay claim to water, the answer is much more complicated than if ownership is justified.  If water can be owned, can it be bought? Or is the ownership in name only, meaning that I can own the water I pull from a stream? I think the answer is a bit of both.  When I pull water from a stream to use it, I own that water.  John Locke writes that ownership of a resource only requires the mixing of one’s labor with the resource – by Lockean understanding, I own whatever water I remove from the water cycle.



(Photo Credit 1: Water Ownership) (Image Credit 2: Public Services International)

(Re)Producing Gender: The New Water Cycle

In honor of World Water Day my colleague at Women In and Beyond the Global, Lisa Seyfried, began writing on the intimate connections between gender and water – particularly that water is provided as a part of the domestic labors of women.

At the same time, a cry for help rang out across the provinces of southern China. They are experiencing what could be the worst drought in a century. Reservoirs and rivers desperately needed to sustain life are drying up. It is getting to the point where even the ground is beginning to crack of thirst. It is impossible to know for certain how many people have been affected. In just one province, according to government officials, there are 19 million people with a severe shortage of drinking water. For some comparison, according to the most recent government estimate, that is about two million people more than the total number of residents in Beijing. And that is just one province. Another three provinces are said to be in similar straits.

With no water immediately available, many villagers are forced to wander for miles in order to bring back as much water as they can carry. Many of these are women or girls.

The problem goes beyond not having enough water to drink. There is also not enough water to sustain either the livestock or the crops. Under the hukuo system (the system of house-hold registration that determines access to social services), it is expected that many rural villagers will engage in subsistence farming rather than employment. Much of the families’ yearly income comes from selling their excess produce at a price that is fixed below market value by the government.

Who then, decides the allocation of the water that is made available? Not the women in charge of retrieving it. Further, as water becomes increasingly privatized, the men in the villages do not get much say either.

These regions most affected by drought are also expected to provide many of the flowers for the country as well as other nations. In fact, this same region is the single largest wholesale center for flowers in all of China. It is this same market for gendered tokens  which decides that available water will go to producing saleable commodities rather than to sustaining human populations.

Many of the rural villagers are being forced to migrate toward more industrial centers as the land becomes increasingly untenable for subsistence. There is a limited supply of gendered destinations. The men are left to go to the urban centers, where they will erect   the glass and steel facades of Chinese modernity. Or they can enter the mines – which continue to pollute more sources of water through environmentally destructive practices such as strip mining or mountaintop removal.

The women, however, bear the increased burdens of this migration. Since they are most often left behind in the village, the duty of care labor falls upon them, without any support that their partner may have otherwise provided or received. Depending on age and familial position, they may be expected to migrate in order support themselves as well as their families.

If a woman has a younger brother (the one child policy has a stipulation that a second child may be afforded if the first born is female), the cultural conditions dictate that she may have to work extra to support his educational endeavors.

If she is young enough and/or attractive enough (by the standards of the employer of course), she may be expected to go to work in the industrial centers either in retail or in the factories. Or she may find herself in the more informal economies if she proves to be unsuitable for the other types of labor. As she works to (re)produce herself as well as her family, she will be simultaneously responsible for facilitating the standard of living that many in the US have become accustomed to having.  She serves two household masters, and both are distant and intimately felt.

Beyond that, her labors will further contribute to the ecological damage that leads to the drought. Two of China’s largest exports, clothing and electronics, require some of the most intensive investments of water – water which is then so polluted by production that it cannot be safely used for human consumption. In this way, the migrant woman worker becomes a part of the force that created the impetus for her migration in the first place.

This is the new water cycle, spiraling out from the original state of the waters’ potential. A new industry moves into the region. Women are predominantly employed since their labor is more cost effective. The industry purchases rights over the usage of the water. Water becomes scarce. More women move to the factory for much needed work, potentially working for less than the previous cohort as they are more desperate for money. If the industry is to survive, it must draw from a wider pool of resources, bringing more devalued labor with it. Finally the industry moves elsewhere to a fresher supply of resources, leaving in their wake the hollowed out shell of how the people used to survive.

A system built on unlimited growth through the exploitation of limited resources cannot be sustained indefinitely. An obvious point yet one that has yet to be fully accepted as truth. While we demand that our standard of living be subsidized through the exploitation of cheap labor and even cheaper labor standards, the economic machines march on towards our collective destruction. This destruction cannot be averted through a green-washing of the problem. We need to fundamentally alter our relationship to water and by extension, the ways that we relate to feminized labor.


Women and Water: The Women for Water Partnership

The ties between women and water are numerous.  While only some are recognized by mainstream culture or activism, the ways in which women are tied to water are often used as ways to promote the adoption of sustainable water practices.  As gathering, storing, and using water takes up the majority of the day for many women throughout the developing world, they have been put at the forefront of community-driven campaigns for clean water.

While some place women at the forefront of this campaign because water is seen as a domestic issue and therefore a women’s issue, there is much more to the connection between women and water than that.  In some places, women (and children) can spend up to 8 hours a day walking many miles to a clean water source.  Often, this water source is so far away because of effects of climate change, environmental degradation, or the privatization of water.  This can go unnoticed by local authorities because it is seen as a part of the everyday tasks of women.  The impacts and implications of actions taken by governments and by large corporations go unnoticed by those not directly affected by it. Women take notice.

The Women for Water Partnership takes notice.  Based in The Netherlands, the partnership works with women’s organization all over the world – Africa, Europe, South America, Central America and the Caribbean, Asia, and the Middle East.  They work to bridge the gaps between the foreign policy solutions to water management and the on-the-ground women who are expected to carry out those solutions in their day-to-day lives.  Through this work, the Women for Water Partnership also works to empower women to take leadership roles in their communities, especially in regards to water issues in the community. The Partnership works with communities not only to ensure safe drinking water for families but also to educate people about the importance of water conservation.

What is important to note about this organization is that it works as a network of women and water organizations.  The groups doing the work are local organizations working with local people rather than a UN based task force sent in to educate the native peoples about their own water situations without understanding the culture, community structure, or region-specific issues related to water.  The scarcity of water in Uzbekistan is not the same issue as the securing of clean water in India – each region has different issues to face and solutions to create that are dependent on the culture and people of each region.

Charles Kennel discusses the importance of looking at each nation’s issues individually, in a region by region basis, and James Speth and Peter Haas in their book Global Environmental Governance build on that by likening environmental policies (in this case, women and water activism) to jazz. There can be no one model that can be reproduced over and over again, but rather there must be room to improvise and experiment with the methods to find what works best for that nation.

This is what is important when it comes to looking at organizations that work with putting women in charge of water solutions – one method does not work in every instance, in every country.  There must be room for experimentation and discussion among the numerous organizations working in this area.  A network of organizations that can discuss what has worked well and what was not helpful to people in that area is beneficial to finding the best ways to work with women and water – and that network should be made up of people who are a part of the community, not outsiders coming in to help or to preach the best way of doing something.

While a network of communities that reaches around the globe may work towards the good, it can only do so if that network has roots in the communities themselves.  Women have long been oppressed by others, and women of the developing world who are working to create and develop sustainable communities do not need to be oppressed by a colonialist ideology, regardless of its intentions. The parallels between the misuse of water resources and the oppression of women in communities are many, and tie women to water in ways beyond the fact that both are necessary for giving life, or the idea that there is an inherent quality of care-giving and nurturing present in both women and water.  Women are tied to water because both have been exploited and oppressed. Networks such as the Women for Water Partnership are helping to give voice to both women’s empowerment and the scarcity of water resources.


(Image Credit: Women for Water Partnership)