How fetching water is holding back India's women

Sunita Bhurbade
Sunita Bhurbade spends up to five hours a day collecting drinking water for her family [BBC/MANGESH SONAWANE]

Fetching drinking water is a gruelling daily routine for millions of women in India.

Even without enduring the scorching summer months or the freezing winters, they walk for miles every day, balancing plastic or earthen pots on their heads and carrying buckets in their hands to manage the household water stock.

“It’s a daily struggle. I get so tired that I collapse when I’m done,” says Sunita Bhurbade from Tringalwadi, a tribal village 180km (112 miles) from India’s financial hub, Mumbai.

Ms Bhurbade spends four-to-five hours every day travelling back and forth from her nearest reliable water source - a dry lake - to fill her pots. The water is dirty and she has to dig holes on the side for the water to filter through naturally and seep in.

“For four-to-five months every year, women have no option but to fetch water from long distances because nearby wells and water sources dry up,” she says. Ironically, her village receives one of the heaviest rainfalls in the region.

Because of this daily grind, she constantly complains of back and neck pain, fatigue and weakness.

The daily rigour also bars her and other women from her village from pursing a paid job.

“No-one will hire me even as a farm labourer because they won’t allow me to show up at work in the afternoon,” she says.

"If I go after water, I have to sacrifice my livelihood. If I try to earn a wage, my family stays thirsty.”

A woman in India carries water on her head
It's physically exhausting work every day - and it stops women from getting jobs [Getty Images]

According to a 2023 report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Unicef, 1.8 billion people worldwide collect drinking water from supplies located off premises, and in seven out of 10 households, women and girls are primarily responsible for water collection.

This is particularly true in India where, experts say, the need to secure drinking water is holding women back and hindering economic growth.

“First, women can’t take up paid work because they have to do all the household chores and secondly, even if they wish to find some work after doing their daily chores, there are not enough paid jobs for women in rural India," says Prof Ashwini Deshpande, who heads the economics department in Delhi's Ashoka University.

The value of women’s unpaid labour in Indian economy is huge. India’s largest commercial bank State Bank of India (SBI)’s Ecowrap report indicates that the total contribution of unpaid women's work to the economy is around 22.7 trillion rupees ($276.8bn; £216.7bn), almost 7.5% of India’s total GDP.

The NGO International Development Organisation estimates that Indian women spend 150 million work days every year fetching water.

Experts say that if women can spend this time in paid activities, they can be financially independent and it can also boost the economy.

The Indian government says it is constantly working to improve water infrastructure countrywide. By January 2024, it said it had provided piped water to almost 74% of rural households.

For those who had to earlier fetch water from outside but are now getting piped water in their homes, the experience has been life-changing.

“I open the tap, water comes rushing… it’s like a dream. I had been fetching water since I was five,” says Mangal Khadke, who’s married and in her 30s and lives about 30km from Ms Bhurbade.

But there are still millions who lack access to tap water.

People drink from water tanks in Kolkata
Access to clean drinking water is a problem in both rural and urban India [Getty Images]

Around 700km away from Tringalwadi, in the Aaki village of central India’s Amaravati district, village head Indrayani Javarkar spends most of her day finding and collecting water.

“It’s so dry here in the summer that every day I wake up with one thought in my mind: where can I find water today?” she says.

Indrayani has two jobs: first, find and collect water for her family, and second, to organise water tankers for her village.

"Both the tasks are getting harder every day," she says.

Ms Bhurbade says getting tap water for her is still a distant dream.

“[Women] start when they are children themselves. Someone hands them a small bucket and says, fetch what you can carry. And then, it’s a lifetime's obligation - until she dies, she is fetching water," she says.

Ms Bhurbade doesn’t remember a single year where she didn’t have to walk miles with a pot on her head.

We asked what she would do if she didn’t have to fetch water and had spare time.

She thinks hard and says she likes to sing. But her songs are also about water.

"Radu nako bala mi panyala jate," she sings for us.

It means: "Don’t cry my child, I am going to fetch water."