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Meet the Experts: Bringing Water to Rural Communities to Increase Food Security

Meet Dr. Emily Van Houweling, Associate Director of Women and Gender in International Development at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), home of two Feed the Future Innovation Labs. Emily has worked across Sub-Saharan Africa with development partners including the U.S. Government, universities, local NGOs and the World Bank to improve rural water supplies. From 2006-2008, she served as a Water Resource Management Extension Agent in Mali with the Peace Corps. We talked with her to learn why water matters for food security and economic growth.

Tell us a little about your research and interest in international development.

As the Associate Director for Women and Gender in International Development, I support the gender aspects of donor-funded collaborative research projects, design projects, prepare proposals, and publish articles on research and project findings. My dissertation research involved 14 months of ethnographic study exploring the social and gender related impacts of a large water supply project in Nampula, Mozambique. At Virginia Tech, I’ve taught classes that integrate gender, the environment, and international development from both theoretical and applied perspectives.

What spurred your interest in water and the issues around management of this critical resource?

I grew up in central Oregon, a very dry region of the United States. As Americans, I think we understand the basic concept that we should try to conserve water: don’t let the faucet run while you brush your teeth; if it’s yellow, let it mellow; keep showers short; etc.

But it wasn’t until I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali that I really understood the true value of water. In Mali, every day you have to think about where you’re going to get water and how you will use it. You have to consider, “Should I take a bath, or should I do laundry?” There’s a trade-off between activities, and there were times when I drank water that I shouldn’t have because I didn’t have a choice. I knew that while the situation was temporary for me, water was always a daily concern for the families I lived with.

What are some examples of how access to water impacts rural communities in developing countries?

Although it may sound obvious, water is an incredibly important food security issue. It is a top concern for farmers, especially in the dry, flat, crowded places of the world. Most farmers in Africa are completely dependent on rain, and they often lose crops because of erratic rainfall patterns and have long months of food shortages. When a population spends half their time collecting, managing and protecting water, they struggle to achieve the economic development that ensures health, sustainability and food security.

Water management also has implications for women’s empowerment in rural communities. Gender roles are strictly defined in Mali, so I spent a lot of time with women while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer there. In the dry season, women spend the majority of their day collecting water. Children would often help their mothers with the task at the expense of their education. The day-to-day experience of having to walk to get water makes you see clean water pouring out of the faucet as an amazing thing.

You’ve worked with a wide variety of organizations on water issues in Sub-Saharan Africa. What are some of the lessons learned based on your experiences?

After my Peace Corps Service, I returned to the United States to complete my Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning, and became involved with an impact evaluation of a Millennium Challenge Corporation project that installed over 600 hand pumps innorthern Mozambique. I then applied for and received a Fulbright grant that allowed me to spend time in these communities and observe the societal changes brought by the influx of new water pumps.

The results were surprising: While some women did save time collecting water with the nearby hand pumps, they didn’t use the extra hours in ways that the project designers had anticipated (i.e. economic development). Instead they spent more time with their families and working in the fields.

Furthermore, the benefits of the new water pumps were not evenly distributed throughout the communities; households who had the resources to pay the monthly pump fee understandably gained more, as did families who lived closer to the pumps. New politics developed around pump access, and while women still bore the brunt of the water responsibility, men often controlled the new pumps.

We tend to think that improving water access is a matter of technology while ignoring all the social aspects that are key to making changes sustainable and reducing poverty. But it’s complicated – there is no panacea.

What’s one thing you wish more people understood better about water’s impact on development and food security?

The good news is that there are some new approaches to water planning that holistically address both domestic water needs and productive needs (agriculture, livestock, services, etc.). Multiple use water services designed around agricultural livelihoods can have profound impacts on health, food security and women’s empowerment goals.

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