The Stream, March 27, 2024: When Drought Comes to Poor Rural Areas, Women and Girls Suffer Most, UN Says

Herds graze pastures in Inner Mongolia in this file photo from 2007. Photo © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue


  • The World Water Development Report, an annual UN publication, shows that women and girls are the first to suffer when poor, rural areas experience drought.
  • In Mongolia, millions of animals died during a snow-heavy winter that followed summer drought — a pattern attributed to climate change.
  • Indigenous farmers in Honduras are leading water-saving crop production methods, as the country feels the effects of El Niño.
  • After months of local protests, leaders in eastern Morocco met with residents to discuss new water management plans.

The French territory Guadeloupe, suffering from water insecurity and cancer-causing contamination, has filed an international complaint against the French government.

“France cannot continue to ignore the recurring problems of the Antilles, they have lasted too long. It must recognize that the European Social Charter applies to all its territories.” — Elena Crespi, Western Europe program director for the International Federation for Human Rights.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) last week filed a collective complaint to the European Committee on Social Rights, demanding that France take immediate steps to deliver clean drinking water to its Caribbean territory, the island of Guadeloupe, Reuters reports.

Residents have endured long-standing water shortages, leaks, pollution, and poor sanitation due to neglected infrastructure. Recent drought compounded the crisis. Notably, a toxic pesticide called chlordecone — which was used for decades on the island’s banana farms and banned in the 1990s — continues to contaminate Guadeloupe’s drinking water. According to a 2022 study funded by the French government, the island and its neighbor Martinique, also a French territory, “have among the world’s highest prostate cancer rates.”

Since 2020, local officials in Guadeloupe have canceled more than $32 million in residential water debts, including $14 million this March.

— Christian Thorsberg, Interim Stream Editor

Recent WaterNews from Circle of Blue

The Lead

The facts and figures presented in the United Nations’ annual World Water Development Report, published last week, portray a strained relationship between humans and water: 2.2 billion people had no access to safely managed drinking water in 2022; 1.4 billion people were affected by droughts in 2021 and 2022; and 80 percent of jobs in low-income countries, where small-scale farming is paramount, depend on water. 

“Water, when managed sustainably and equitably, can be a source of peace and prosperity,”  Alvaro Lario, the president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the chair of UN-Water, told The Guardian. “It is also the literal lifeblood of agriculture, the major socioeconomic driver for billions of people.” 

When drought and water shortages affect rural, poor communities, women and girls — who are most often delegated the responsibility of collecting water — are the first to suffer. A lack of safe sanitation, the report says, can result in girls abandoning their education. When water insecurity is centered in local tensions or conflict, vulnerable populations are put at special risk, with women and girls often at the forefront. 

In Gaza, hundreds of thousands of children are facing near-famine, while access to clean water is still almost entirely unavailable. Limited access to pads, toilets, privacy, and running water have complicated the lives of the nearly 700,000 women and girls in Gaza who have menstrual cycles, the UN estimates

This Week’s Top Water Stories, Told In Numbers

2.1 million

Number of livestock who have been killed so far this year in Mongolia, as the country experiences a harsh winter known as dzud: strong winds, cold temperatures, and heavy snow. The frightful weather follows a drought-ridden summer in which animals become malnourished and less resilient. Historically occurring about once every 10 years, this is the sixth in the past decade, a phenomenon scientists have attributed to climate change, Yale Environment 360 reports. Over recent decades, Mongolia’s total amount of precipitation has hardly changed — yet winter snowfall has increased by 40 percent.



Number of Indigenous Tolupan growers in Honduras who in recent years have participated in drought-resilient agroforestry programs to harvest crops in less water-intensive ways, Mongabay reports. Initiatives to diversify cultivation — of avocados, leafy greens, corn, beans, and fruit — include planting different crops adjacent to one another in particular combinations, maintaining soil health, and mitigating the need for larger amounts of water.

On the Radar

Since November, thousands of people in the town of Figuig, Morocco, have stopped paying their water bills and taken to the streets in protest of the local government’s plans to transition water management responsibilities from the town itself to a “regional multi-service agency,” AP reports. Residents worry that the move is a signal that their drinking water — which is entirely stored in an underground aquifer — will soon be privatized, which authorities deny. Regional and local leaders met with the community this week to discuss the plan, which is part of the country’s National Drinking Water Supply and Irrigation Program meant to secure water infrastructure and supplies into the future.

More Water News

Rio Tinto: Andalusia’s Red River, known for its eponymous color, acidic conditions, and high quantities of iron, offers an environment comparable to conditions on Mars, attracting astrobiologists from NASA and around the world, France24 reports.

Breaking Barriers in Botswana: In Botswana’s Okavango Delta, women are beginning to pilot canoes and lead water safaris, a role that has traditionally been held only by men, BBC reports.

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