Story behind the picture #9 Water and Women

‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’, as the Ancient Mariner bemoaned. Of course he was surrounded by seawater, but for a large number of the world’s people the same issue of lack or inability to use water dogs their lives. Simple bonds of hydrogen and oxygen  (H2O), create one of nature’s most incredible substances. With properties so constant in some ways that our metric system of weights and volume is based on it; one litre of water weighs a kilogram, one cubic metre of water weighs a tonne.

It is, of course without calories, colourless, and liquid water has well other defined properties used in the measurement of temperature. In the Centigrade scale, the most widely used, the freezing point of water is at zero degrees, and the boiling point at 100, but other properties are rather counter-intuitive. Water is at its densest at 4C, an anomaly which allows life on earth to exist at all. If water was densest at 0C, ice would sink, and gradually all water would become frozen from the bottom up. Even in the coldest regions on earth, in Siberia, and even in the driest place on earth, Antarctica, liquid water can be found at 4C beneath a mantle of ice, no matter how thick. Glaciers slide on a thin film of water, kept liquid by the pressure from above; otherwise the glacier would stick to the surface, slowly accumulating mass from snowfall, and making the air above so much colder, causing more precipitation. One of the weirdest things about liquid water is that it is constantly in flux, flickering at the atomic level between its fluid and crystalline structures, as reminding itself of its readiness to become ice again.

A person stands in awe of a Norwegian glacier which dwarfs them
Despite appearances, only 1.7% of water on earth is in ice caps and glaciers

Most living things on the planet are composed largely of water, including us. Without it we die quite quickly, as would our crops and animals. Even with it, we can suffer catastrophic harm from unseen hazards like bacteria, minerals, more visible creatures that live and breed in it, even the simple inability to clean things properly, especially wounds. In the western world we are usually unlikely to carry water anywhere, except for using a watering can, or when camping. For much of the world water must be physically moved to where it is required in the home or in agriculture, usually by the labourious creation of drainage ditches, terraces and irrigation channels. Although machinery, animals and men play a huge part in moving water around, in the developing world it is usually women who fetch and carry water for the home. The sheer scale of this labour cannot be underestimated and often erodes time available for education, play and simple childhood for females.

A girl stands atop a concrete tank from which she draws water in a bucket, into a brass water pot to take home.
The concrete cistern is filled from a tanker, then decanted by village women and girls, carrying heavy containers home


Women bear the brunt of hazards involving water, too. The brute effort and drudgery of fetching water from a distant well must surely tax even healthy individuals. Try carrying 25 litres for 15 minutes; it’s not fun. In war-torn areas, gathering water (and fuel) often puts women at risk of unwelcome attention or attack. Unclean water can make children and elderly very sick or cause death where their immune systems cannot cope. Caring responsibilities fall on women in general the world over..

Cleanliness, in food preparation and sanitation is firmly in the remit of women in most of the world, too. Even harder may be the ritual cleanliness required during menstruation, where understanding and facilities may be woefully absent, compounding the restrictive attitudes to a normal human event.. Childbirth too, an essential area for cleanliness, is made more hazardous by tainted water, as if infant mortality wasn’t such a risk already.


Sanitation is an issue that affects around 2.5 billion people worldwide – vast amounts of untreated sewage finds its way into wells and watercourses, magnifying the hazards many times over. Women are again at risk, venturing into the bush or the fields, often in the dark for their toilet.


A small troupe of women with entourage of small children, carry earthenware water pots to the village well
Women carrying water pots to the village well – a common sight morning and evening throughout Asia and Africa

There are, as humans, rather a lot of things which we take for granted; the air we breathe, the cycling of the seasons, the help and cooperation of our compatriots on this planet. We are not able to change the physical properties of water, but we CAN change the impact our water use has on so  many of the world’s population. The next time you turn on the tap in your house, wash your clothes, waste 100 litres of drinking water to pressure wash your patio, run cold water over a burn or flush the toilet, spare a thought for the one billion humans without access to safe and clean water, the 2.5 billion without adequate sanitation.

A naive painting from Ethiopia of a woman carrying water
A stylised painting from Bahar Dar, Ethiopia, of a woman carrying water


#The Wonder of Water – Lyall Watson


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