Until recently, women in the village of Jukna, in the remote province of Badghis in western Afghanistan, used to walk four kilometres a day to collect drinking water for their families. And even then, the scarce, brackish water was often a health hazard.
“The women used to collect water from uncovered reservoirs that were exposed to impurities,” says Gulistan, a local carpet weaver and mother of six. “We were constantly at risk of bacterial and parasitic infections, and our children risked diarrhoeal disease.”
A UNDP scheme is helping to change this situation. But the path to improving the water supply began not with plumbing, but with local council meetings. While women in Afghanistan have a greater stake in some community issues, such as the availability of water, they are often excluded from government decisions. But now, a joint initiative of the government and UNDP involves speaking with local elders and family members to help women participate in local councils and speak out about what matters most.
For the first time in her life, through the scheme, Gulistan was able to voice her concerns to the community. She has now become a member of the Community Development Council and the District Development Assembly – and her main mission is clean water.
Since participating in the councils and speaking out about the issue, her activism has helped kick-start a project to dig deep wells, creating water reservoirs and running pipes to conveniently located hand pumps within the community. This ensures that every local family gains access to safe drinking water.
To date, these projects have benefited more than 300,000 people, including more than 160,000 women and girls. UNDP has now started 217 water supply projects across all six districts of Badghis province. In total, it has now started 612 water supply and sanitation projects across Afghanistan through similar schemes, which have helped more than 2 million people access safe and clean water.
“To help ensure long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan, it is essential to ensure that the needs of all people including women and other vulnerable groups are met across all communities,” says UNDP’s Daud Rahimi. “UNDP is working to make sure that people have livelihoods and are discouraged from fighting again. We also work to make sure that people feel they can have a stake in local government – so they can effect change without recourse to violence. When these councils make a point of asking what women want, one of the most common answers is better access to water, which of course benefits everyone.”
As a result of UNDP’s efforts, common water-borne illnesses are now becoming a thing of the past in Badghis province. In the village of Jukna, thanks to Gulistan and other women voicing their concerns at local governance councils, change is on its way.
Twenty-six-year-old Shargol, a mother of five, says her life has improved significantly. “I used to have to walk for several kilometers to and from the river and, depending on the season, the water was sometimes very muddy. But I did not have a choice,” she says. “My children were often very ill, making it difficult to even go to collect the water. But now the water supply is so close to the village and it is clean!”
For Gulistan, things have also changed for the better thanks to clean water. “Nowadays, I get potable drinking water from four nearby reservoirs and don’t have to take hours of my time from caring for my kids and housework,” she says. “Because of the clean drinking water, my medical expenses have even fallen, allowing me to save more money and giving me more time to help provide for my family.”