The role of piped water supplies in advancing health, economic development, and gender equality in rural communities

Piped water interventions resulted in a significant reduction of time spent fetching water for girls and women, as well as increased household water consumption.

Introduction

More than two-thirds of sub-Saharan African households lack access to piped water, which consists of a centralized pumping station that transports water via underground pipes to shared or private spaces.

In the absence of a piped water system, households often allocate a significant portion of their day to fetching water from sources that are distant from the home. Water fetching is an activity that is predominantly performed by women and girls, which can result in negative effects to their physical and psychosocial well-being, and can cause time poverty and gender-based violence.

The authors of this paper aimed to understand what effects accessible piped water has on communities that gain access to it. Specifically, they sought to understand outcomes related to time poverty (particularly of women and girls), economic opportunity, and food security.

The study was conducted in four rural villages in two districts in Zambia. Two of them served as the treatment group and were villages where an NGO constructed piped water systems for households; the remaining two villages served as the control group that used traditional (non-piped) water sources.

Findings

Piped water interventions resulted in reduced time spent fetching water, increased water consumption, and increases in the frequency of gardening and the size of gardens.

  • For households that gained access to shared or private taps, the distance to their water source shrank to a median of 12 meters from a baseline of 139 meters.
  • The total time households spent fetching water fell by 80%, and the amount of time spent by women and girls was reduced by 77% and 69%, respectively. The intervention was associated with a median 3.8 hours per week in time savings per household, most of which accrued to women and girls.
  • Respondents in the treatment households reported that they were happier (64%), their families were healthier (47%), and they felt less worried (22%) as a result of the system being installed, compared to pre-intervention levels.
  • Total median water usage in treatment households was 32% higher than in the same households at baseline.
  • Providing piped water to households was associated with 4.4-fold higher odds of having a garden; among households with gardens and piped water, garden area increased by 140% (57.1 square meters). Significantly more treatment (52%) than comparison (23%) households reported that they planned to generate new income from additional sales from their garden. Additionally, households in treatment villages also reported cultivating approximately 1.1 more crop types at endline than at baseline – their odds increased of cultivating more sweet potato (by a factor of 5.1), okra (by a factor of 3.5), and rapeseed (by a factor of 2.5).

The findings from this study emphasize the potential for shared and private piped water systems to generate well-being benefits in rural communities. Piped water supplies can generate substantial increases in time savings, water consumption, and productive uses of water, disproportionately benefitting the well-being of women and girls. However, as wealthier households can pay up-front connection fees and better leverage improved water supply, future research should elaborate on the conditions under which lower income households are able to benefit from piped water infrastructure so as not to reinforce existing inequities.

Methodology

This study was conducted in four rural villages in two districts in Zambia’s southern province during 2018–2019. Two of the villages served as the treatment group and were villages where an NGO constructed piped water systems for households; the remaining two villages served as the control group that used traditional (non-piped) water sources.

Data collection occurred in three periods: May 2018 (baseline), September 2018 (midline), and June 2019 (endline). During each period, the same households in each village were visited for an interview (mean length: 47 min) on their water use and fetching behaviors. The interviews were conducted in Tonga, the local language of the region, and the person interviewed was typically the adult daughter or sister of the female head of household. A total of 434 household surveys were conducted across the four villages and three periods of data collection.

To guard against potential bias in self-reported time estimation, authors also directly measured fetching time with a subset of participants in treatment and comparison households using Global Positioning System (GPS) transponders, which recorded participants’ walking paths from their homes to their primary water source.

Intersectionality

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