BBC World Service interview: Inequality in the consumption of water

Published on 9 February 2016

In a recent interview with the BBC World Service’s flagship discussion programme, The ForumLyla Mehta, IDS Professorial Research Fellow, argued that the lack of access to basic necessities of water and sanitation is a horrific crime of our time. Lyla stated that not even any act of war or terrorism can equal the number of deaths that take place on a daily basis as a direct result of not having access to these basic necessities.

Alongside historian of consumerism, Frank Trentmann and the political scientist, Eduardo Gómez, Lyla was interviewed by Bridget Kendall on ‘Consumption and Our Identity’. In agreement with her fellow panellists, Lyla stated that while it is important to understand the historical and cultural trends of consumption, we need to look and address at the more recent trends which are unsustainable.

Lyla pointed out that it is not just about over-consumption, or under-consumption, but there is an enormous amount of inequality in the consumption of water, which is primarily related to geography and gender. In the interview, Lyla made three points about the inequality in the consumption of water:

People living on the margins

In many cities, particularly in developing countries, like Delhi or Mumbai, there are people that live on the fringe of the city and do not have same rights and access to basic necessities. They are often considered ‘illegal’ or informal residents of the city, and while middle class or upper class people enjoy state sponsored water, a lot of benefits, citizenship rights, and water coming from distant sources (dams), many living on the margins are left to fend for themselves. Lyla recalled her field work for the STEPS centre project in Ghaziabad, India, where some communities were getting black water from a hand pump. In addition, on a daily basis they risked their lives to cross a railway line to beg for a bucket of water, resulting in people dying almost every month.

Water injustices are also gender injustices

Because of the unfair division of labour, it is often women and girls that will have to spend up to three hours a day collecting water, Lyla argued. In Tigray, Ethiopia, she highlighted an experience of recent fieldwork where 20 women and girls were waiting at a water point for 4 hours for somebody to turn the tap on. Those, Lyla explained, are productive hours that could be used on livelihoods or schooling.

Is there enough water to go around?

It is a question of distribution, access and exclusion. Lyla stated that we need to focus more on the political aspects of scarcity and the fact that scarcity is not something that is natural. Scarcity is socially mediated, and rather than being inevitable, the success or failure of the distribution of water it is more a question of management, or mismanagement.

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