Pipe dream

Those of us in the developed world tend to take our privileges for granted: it’s exactly what drove the Internet meme “First World problem”, a phrase long since committed to dictionaries.

A recent study of how water access affects the lives of Zambian families rather hammers home how different things are in the developing world.

A group of researchers from Stanford University, US, have found that installing piped water systems in rural villages reduces the time spent fetching water by 80%.

“Switching from the village borehole to piped supply saved almost 200 hours of fetching time per year for a typical household,” says senior author Jenna Davis. “This is a substantial benefit, most of which accrued to women and girls.”

Just one third of households in sub-Saharan Africa have access to piped water, meaning most water needs to be fetched, the researchers report. Most of this responsibility falls on women and girls, who sometimes need to carry containers weighing around 18kg.

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Zambian woman watering the family garden from a newly installed household tap. Credit: James Winter

This work and its burdens can have an impact on childcare, hygiene and physical and mental health.

“Addressing this problem provides the time and water for women and girls to invest in their household’s health and economic development, in whatever way they see fit,” says lead author James Winter.

The researchers followed the routines of four Zambian villages that had similar populations, access to schooling, nutritional security, and economic opportunity. Halfway through the study, piped water was installed in two of the villages, reducing the distance to a water source down to a maximum of 15 metres.

A team of Zambian interviewers surveyed 434 households during 2018–19 and gathered information about time spent fetching water, the amount of water used for domestic chores, and water used to make food and materials (e.g. for watering gardens, making bricks or caring for animals). Some of the women and girls also wore GPS trackers when retrieving water to assess walking speeds and distances covered.

The researchers found that the time saved through a piped water supply disproportionately benefited women, leaving them time for childcare and working outside of their homes to sell produce and goods. The families with access to piped water also reported being happier and less worried.

Beyond time saved, the water access also allowed households to use 32% more water on tasks such as growing vegetables; garden sizes doubled over the year the study was conducted. This led to more produce that could be consumed and sold, which benefited both household health and the local economy.

“The benefits we see here make it crucial for future work to understand how these systems can be operated and maintained in a financially sustainable way, even in geographically isolated, rural communities,” says Winter.

The paper was recently published in Social Science & Medicine.

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