Penn Study Examines Safe Access to Clean Water in Low-Income Countries

PHILADELPHIA — Susan B. Sorenson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice, has teamed up with Philadelphia Global Water Initiative, along with the Penn School of Nursing, to study water fetching and the need for access to clean water in developing nations.

As a part of Penn’s Year of Water, the researchers studied water fetching in 44 countries and published “Safe access to safe water in low-income countries: Water fetching in current times,” in Social Science & Medicine.

The researchers found that water-gathering duties mainly fall to the female members of the household, and in some countries they have to walk more than an hour per trip to retrieve enough clean water for their families.  Often, a family’s needs require several trips each day to retrieve enough water for drinking, cooking, bathing and more.

“Little research has quantified the burden of this work on women, who bear the primary responsibility to identify appropriate containers, carry them to the water source, sometimes over great distance and difficult terrain, obtain the water and return home with the heavy shifting loads,” Sorenson said.

Researchers note that while health and economic perspectives have been the main focus of women’s work in supplying water, looking at the wide range of effects is essential to gain a better understanding of the workload involved with water fetching.  These include concerns that have been overlooked in the past, including road casualties, assault and attack risks, related health outcomes such as neck and back injuries, the number of trips, the condition of the terrain and priorities in water usage, like sacrificing sanitation when water supplies are low.

 “Understanding the interplay of multiple factors in how the task of water fetching is assigned and assumed will provide a more thorough understanding of how communities meet their needs for water,” Sorenson said.

Sorenson also said the interpersonal aspects of fetching water, such as networking, social support, quarrels and social denigration, warrant further research.