Pathway to Empowerment: Women’s Decision-Making and Access to Water in the Pacific

In Tonga, access to water has a major impact on the lives of women and girls. Photo: ADB
In Tonga, access to water has a major impact on the lives of women and girls. Photo: ADB

By Ritu Verma

By meeting women’s practical and strategic needs, including greater access to water and more influence in decision-making, society overall is improved and made more equitable.  

Many people dream about living in a hut on a remote tropical island, surrounded by the aqua waters of the Pacific Ocean, turquoise-hued skies, and the gentle swaying of coconut trees. For many in the Pacific, this is their reality. But life amid this stunning natural beauty comes with certain challenges. Including, paradoxically, access to water.

While the Pacific Islands are surrounded by an abundance of water, salty ocean water is not suitable for drinking. In the context of increased urbanization, impacts of climate change and ocean pollution, access to water is more critical than ever. This is especially true for women.

In Tonga, access to clean, safe, reliable, and affordable running water is a basic, but precious necessity. Climate change has meant erratic rainfall bringing too much or too little water, rising sea levels, and the warming and acidification of oceans. This in turn disproportionately affects women, due to the way work and responsibilities are divided between men and women - which assigns triple burdens of livelihoods, household and community responsibilities on women.

In Tonga, in addition to carrying out the invisible work of managing the community’s water supply, women are often responsible for the collection, use, and conservation of water for household sustenance such as cooking, drinking, washing clothes and utensils, cleaning, watering gardens, bathing, hygiene, and sanitation. This is on top of income-generating work sustained by inshore fishing, shellfish collection, handicraft production and subsistence farming—all of which depend on water.

Women in Tonga face other challenges as well. In the nation’s capital, Nuku’alofa, access to safe, clean women-only bathrooms is in short supply in public spaces. These issues are especially acute for pregnant, elderly, and differently-abled women. Another challenge that falls on the shoulders of women is the increased use of pre-packaged food. It not only negatively impacts the environment and people’s health, but generates solid waste, the disposal of which falls to women.

One example where such issues are addressed is the Nuku’alofa Urban Development Sector Project, where women benefit from improved water distribution and solid waste collection. Infrastructure upgrades such as new reservoirs, bore fields, and connections to the main trunk lines to pipes leading to households have created better water flow and pressure than before. The construction and renovation of public toilets, sanitation facilities for vulnerable households, the introduction of a complaints system in the Waste Authority and Tonga Water Board, and information-sharing systems about urban services through radio, text, and publication messaging are contributing to women’s practical needs. The improved, expanded collection of household solid waste has led to cleaner and healthier communities.

For women across the Pacific, access to affordable, safe, and clean water supply and regular solid waste collection can free up their time for other activities, rest time and wellbeing.

The impact of these developments was no accident and illustrate the importance of these key lessons. Women’s strategic needs were also supported by including women in project consultations, awareness-raising of women in scientific and technical roles through films and public awareness campaigns, and improved human resources policies at the Common Utilities Board, which is now providing for maternity and paternity leave, and flextime.

By looking at the project through a gender lens – or taking a perspective that is sensitive to the needs of women and girls in a given context – it became evident that both piped and harvested household water play a critical role as a survival strategy. Our rapid gender assessment illustrated that women engage in complex strategies of multiple uses of water, whereby they use “tap water” 70% of the time for washing clothes, dishes, showers, toilets, etc., while relying on harvested “tank water” 30% of the time for drinking and cooking. While women’s time poverty is reduced in the former, it is not in the latter.

The installation of household smart water meters increased efficiency in measuring water and electricity supply. We found that following increased electricity and water tariffs to ensure cost recovery, household expenditures increased for urban services. While infrastructure upgrading was successful in terms of technical, engineering, cost recovery, and economic efficiency, it had unintended side effects that the project was interested in learning about.

The collection and analysis of data that is disaggregated by gender allows for these issues to become evident. For instance, in some cases, water losses from new pipes to the old, rusting household pipes result in increased water bills, as well as water contamination from that section.

Household expenditures on utilities increase because households are unable to opt out of set garbage collection fees which are included in the combined electricity, water, and garbage collection bill, regardless of how much household waste is generated. This edges some vulnerable households further toward economic hardship, especially the elderly, landless, economically poor, and those headed by women. The desire to learn about such unintended impacts is commendable, as it serves the greater purpose of providing reflections for other future projects. 

Still, much more can be done in future initiatives.

For women across the Pacific, access to affordable, safe, and clean water supply and regular solid waste collection can free up their time for other activities, rest time and wellbeing. However, it is not enough to only address women’s practical needs. The critical challenge is to simultaneously support their long-term strategic needs. That is, support women in gaining access to meaningful leadership and a voice in solutions, consultations, decision-making, and shifting power relations, areas where gender inequality is more evident and entrenched.

Gender transformative approaches have greater potential than older modes of gender ‘mainstreaming’ in ensuring women have greater voice and choice. By prioritizing approaches that apply equal weight, resources, and budgets to all technical fields, including rigorous gender analysis, we can enable meaningful gender equality that improves the lives of women and society overall.