Monday, April 15, 2024
CommentaryWater for women, women for water

Water for women, women for water

Public opinion says Ethiopia has an abundance of water—the “water tower for Africa”. For many women in this country, this is becoming increasingly hard to believe. In the rural areas of Ethiopia, many women and girls spend hours a day walking long distances to get water for their families. This robs women of time to earn an income, rest, and spend time with their families while preventing girls from going to school or doing other things children do, like play.

In the cities too, women who do most of the household chores, such as cooking, washing dishes, and bathing children, often face the burden of managing the inconsistent or unpredictable flow of water from the city tap.

Women are connected to water, for better or worse. For a girl living in a rural area, if there is a drought within the first 1000 days of her life, she will likely suffer from its impact for the rest of her life, and her children are more likely to suffer from stunting and poor health as well. The current drought in Ethiopia and across the Horn of Africa, which is largely displacing women and children, is a devastating reminder of this.

As a geospatial modeler working on water and climate challenges, I spend much of my time working with large datasets and manipulating lines of code. The suffering of the women in my country is the main driver behind my passion. I know that for women—and for all of us—the water scarcity challenge is getting harder. Our growing population and economy naturally drive an increasing thirst for water, but there are very limited water supplies.

Climate change is altering our seasons and making rainfall even less predictable. And as our forests and wetlands are lost, so too are the natural services they provide, from cleaning our streams and replenishing our groundwater to providing rainfall. I am confronted by these challenges not only in my modeling and research work but also in my daily life.

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Water is the backbone of everything. There is no sustainable, thriving future without a secure water future. How we manage water matters. Unfortunately, managing water is as complex as it is crucial. Clearly, we need all hands on deck.

In the water and climate sectors, which are traditionally male-dominated fields, many women are excelling and making a difference. Evidence shows that women’s involvement in the management of water resources, water infrastructure, and climate mitigation and adaptation improves efficiency and effectiveness. But not enough women are able to be part of the solution.

Women are still underrepresented in critical fields like water and climate. A 2020 study of 15 public universities in Ethiopia found that only 22 percent of female enrollments were in STEM subjects, so it is not surprising that the number of women entering the water and climate fields is limited.

This challenge is not unique to Ethiopia. The good news is that this is an exciting time to work on water and climate challenges. This is especially true as new technologies are developed and become more widely available for better data and better decisions. Earth observation technologies, which use satellites, weather stations, or weather balloons to collect information about earth systems and human activities using increasingly powerful sensors and process the data using increasingly powerful computing systems, have become an essential tool in addressing water and climate challenges, providing increasingly accurate and timely information.

Earth observation technologies are improving weather forecasting and early warning systems, which can help communities prepare for extreme weather events such as floods and droughts and take action to minimize their impacts. There is also a whole range of exciting technologies that are improving and transforming how we use water, such as smart irrigation, leak detection systems, and so much more. These technologies, along with improved policies and management, can have a real impact on water, food, and climate security for women and for all of us.

I firmly believe that if we harness the untapped potential of women and girls in Ethiopia, we can address the enormous and urgent water and climate challenges. We have an abundance of talent and untapped potential; we just need to reinforce the pipeline. As the saying goes, “It’s foolish for one to go thirsty while surrounded by water.” It would be foolish for us to run out of capacity when we have a wealth of potential.

If you are a young woman considering career options, don’t be afraid to reach out to other women professionals to learn from their experience and seek mentorship.

If you are a woman professional working in the water and climate sectors, look for opportunities to provide resources, opportunities, and encouragement to young women. And don’t forget to continue investing in your network of fellow female professionals.

If you are a man with a seat at the table and you see there aren’t enough seats occupied by women, pull up a chair—or several.

Whoever you are, let’s all continue to support and celebrate the women and girls who are called to transform our water and climate sectors. We can’t have a thriving, resilient future in this country for our women and girls—and for all of us—without a secure water future. And for that, we need to unleash the potential of Ethiopia’s female scientists and engineers.

(Tinebeb Yohannes is a research associate working in the Water Program at the World Resources Institute.)

Contributed by Tinebeb Yohannes

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