Sareen Malik on the worldwide water crisis: ‘Women should sit at the table when decisions are being made’

Article: 22.08.22, Amsterdam, Karin Bojorge-Alvarez

Sareen Malik, executive director of ANEW, the African Civil Society Network on Water, sees it happening: ‘Wells and rivers are drying up due to high temperatures occasioned by climate change, and the little water available is slowly getting contaminated. This means that women are going to suffer even more.’ It makes the work of the NGOs in over fifty African countries that ANEW represents even more urgent and challenging.

This is an abbreviated article, based on an interview with Sareen Malik in Nairobi, Kenya by Eunice Mwaura and Nicera Wanjiru from Vice Versa Global. Photo's Eunice Mwaura.

You have more than fifteen years of expertise in water governance: what is the impact you see from climate change on water and sanitation?

‘A couple of months ago, we managed to get women community members from Mali, in the middle of the Water Week, to come and speak about their challenges. They told us that as a result of the shrinking water spots due to climate change, their lives had become more difficult. They are now more exposed to assault and other forms of violence in their quest to find water. There is also an effect on their health since carrying a jerrycan for hours on end is bound to have serious implications.

‘In the Horn of Africa, camels have been dying because of lack of water, demonstrating how severe the situation is. The search for water has seen a mass exodus towards urban centres, putting even more pressure on the existing systems, which subsequently leads to a rise in the level of conflicts at the existing water points.

‘The average person needs one hundred litres of water a day. We are seeing people trying to make do with just twenty litres a day, or even less, due to the cost. This has had an adverse effect on their dignity, so obviously climate change coming in is only going to make things worse.’

Why do women play a key role in water and sanitation?

‘Water is a daily struggle for women and girls coming from low-income background communities. In a majority of households, women have been designated as the main water providers. On average they have to walk approximately four miles a day, just to fetch water for their daily needs.’

Malik describes an occasion where she wanted to analyse herself how long, on average, women and girls take to access water. She had to line up for three hours at a water point in one of the urban informal settlements in Nairobi Kenya. ‘Even though I was there by 5 am, I still found a long queue of women with jerrycans waiting for their turn. Some might have walked for miles to get there; others were young girls who probably got late to school because that water is needed at home.’

‘There have also been cases of some not having money to purchase it, even after queuing for long hours, which is also another challenge. Whoever pays the piper, plays the tune and in this case whoever controls the resource, calls the shots. Women have been made to trade sex for water, a survival tactic they had to employ so they can acquire this precious resource.’

‘Water sources, including boreholes and springs, are drying up. Water scarcity, caused by climate change, has serious health outcomes, with menstrual hygiene management for women becoming an issue.’

Why should solutions involve women and girls?

‘A woman centred approach is a huge shift in terms of policies and the way systems are currently built. It places women at the centre of how systems and facilities are built and designed to respond to certain segments of society like girls, children and people with disabilities.

‘Societies where women are not protected are the ones that are not advancing. One of the initiatives we have been pushing for, is for women to be at the point of sale since they are rarely the water vendors. Evidence based reports show that water points that are managed by women have few cases of sexual and gender-based violence. So, we encourage them to get involved or be given more chances to be water vendors.

‘It is also the same thing in terms of the setup. Most of them are built through the lenses of a man. A woman would have probably designed it differently. We are trying to advocate for that and are doing so at all levels, from the planning to design, and encouraging more girls to take up the study and get involved in the sector.

‘We have been working hard to ensure that governments open that space for civil society to come in and table the issues. On the ground, we are seeing more women coming in.’

What are your demands to countries that caused the climate crisis?

‘For the first time during the Water Week conference we were able to have a woman from the grassroots talk about the situation people in her community go through due to the lack of WASH facilities. Without any filters, she talked of the daily realities they have to go through.

‘More Southern voices need to be amplified. I believe that they are the ones who should sit at the Northern tables in order to really bring the experience home in terms of what is happening; a depiction of how people are suffering and which mitigation efforts are being employed. We are seeing a bit of that shift, with their voices gaining traction in terms of having them speak in the latter’s floors and forums, regardless of whether they are in cabinet or parliament, with support from their global partners.

‘There also needs to be more investments to build the resilience of communities and countries. There is a disempowerment and disenfranchisement that is taking place within communities, whose cause needs to be known. Beyond both the climate and water and sanitation sector, we need to provide the adequate support to build resilience, so that communities can be empowered to tackle these issues head-on.

‘They should be able to sit at the table when decisions are being made and ask the tough questions. However, even the language used is not inclusive enough. It comes off as only reserved for a select few when everything is shrouded in heavy and complicated terms. We need to simplify things so everyone can understand and be sensitized.’

Sareen Malik believes that there is hope. She urges more women to get into the climate change agenda for they are the worst affected. ‘Southern voices needs to be amplified. We need to collect and mine the information that will raise their voices.’ ‘My agenda is to see no jerrycans on the streets. Because without them, we will have empowered more women.’

Sareen Malik in a video we shot of her earlier

Sareen Malik and Simavi

August 23th is the start of World Water Week in Stockholm. On invitation of Simavi, Sareen Malik will travel to Europe to advocate for community-driven water and climate solutions. In Stockholm she will meet with key players in the water sector to bring grassroots voices to the table.

Later on she will travel to the Netherlands to meet Ministers and Members of Parliament about the upcoming climate summit and the UN 2023 Water Conference, which will be co-chaired by the Netherlands.

Simavi and ANEW have a long history of cooperation to mobilise support for the human right to water and sanitation.

You can also read the article on Vice Versa Global

Esther Oeganda

Everbody has the human right to safe water and sanitation.

Take action