Food For Thought

Women are Key to Creating a Sustainable World


“We owe it to ourselves and to the next generation to conserve the environment so that we can bequeath our children a sustainable world that benefits all.”

Wangari Muta Maathai, Nobel Laureate


By Donna Shaver

Rural women in the developing world are more profoundly affected by climate change and the concomitant environmental challenges than any other segment of the world’s population. Women are the majority of the world’s poor and dependent on the natural resources that are threatened. They bear the responsibility for obtaining water for daily use, and finding and transporting firewood or other fuel. In addition, they are responsible for cooking, washing clothes, working in the fields or garden plots, and providing care for their family members.


Because water sources can be contaminated, sanitation is inadequate, and cookfires cause respiratory diseases, rural populations suffer health consequences that make life even more difficult.

Ironically, because of the nature of the environment and the demands of daily life, women are also contributors to climate change because they lack access to, and knowledge of, alternatives.

One organization with a mission to fill that knowledge void is this month’s Dining for Women recipient, CREATE! Center for Renewable Energy and Appropriate Technology for the Environment.

CREATE! seeks to reduce poverty, promote self-sufficiency and train women on appropriate and sustainable technologies that will improve their lives and protect the environment.


UN Millennium Development Goals

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are eight international development goals that all 193 United Nations member states have agreed to achieve by the year 2015. The goals are:

1. Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger,

2. Achieving universal primary education,

3. Promoting gender equality and empowering women,

4. Reducing child mortality rates,

5. Improving maternal health,

6. Combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases,

7. Ensuring environmental sustainability, and

8. Developing a global partnership for development

Each of the eight goals has specific stated targets and dates for achieving those targets.


CREATE! primarily addresses the following goals:


#1 – Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger



Target: Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day.

According to The Millennium Development Goals Report 2012, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the percentage of the population in extreme poverty fell from 56 percent in 1990 to 47 percent in 2008. A country report for Senegal, published in 2011, states that the drop in poverty level is slower in rural areas. The proportion of the total population in poverty declined from 57.1 percent in 2002 to 50.8 percent in 2005. Rural poverty rates, however, were 57.5 percent in 2002, and have only decreased to 55.6 percent in 2005. In rural areas, nearly six out of ten people are in poverty.

Regarding the proportion of the population who suffer from hunger, The Millennium Development Goals Report 2012 states that in Sub-Saharan Africa, that proportion dropped from 31 percent in 1990-1992 to 27 percent in 2006-2008. But Sub-Saharan Africa was the hardest hit by the economic downturn starting in 2008. The number of undernourished people increased from 211 million to 231 million.

#7 – Ensure Environmental Sustainability



Target 7A: Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes and reverse the loss of environmental resources.

Target 7B: Reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss.

Target 7C: Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

The Millennium Development Goals Indicator data by country do not neatly collect the information by target. Several elements apply to the project we are supporting:

  • Between 1990 and 2010, Senegal lost 4.6 percent of its forests.
  • The current estimate is that 51 percent of the population used solid fuels in 2010. No baseline data is available.
  • The proportion of rural population using an improved drinking water source declined from 61 percent in 1990 to 56 percent in 2010.
  • The proportion of rural population using an improved sanitation facility improved from 22 percent in 1990 to 39 percent in 2010.


The elixir of life: Water

As the climate changes, the concomitant change in weather patterns do not manifest in the same way in every region. With regard to water, sometimes it is too little, sometimes too much, sometimes too late. In most of Sub-Saharan Africa, drought is the more frequent occurrence.

In contrast, about 80 percent of Bangladesh’s landmass is the lowland Bangladesh Plain, with most elevations less than 10 meters above sea level, decreasing in the coastal south, where the terrain is generally at sea level. So rising sea levels and the increase in tropical storms cause severe flooding.

According to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (known as JMP), over 780 million people are still without access to improved sources of drinking water. Only 61 percent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa have improved water supply sources. Over 40 percent of all people who lack access to clean drinking water live in Africa. Of the world population without an improved drinking-water source, 84 percent live in rural areas.

Perhaps the biggest demand on time and energy for women in the developing world is hauling water. It is estimated that, in Africa alone, women and children spend collectively 40 billion hours per year hauling water. In the dry season and drought conditions, obtaining water may require a long walk from the village, and the wait may be long at the waterhole as women line up to fill their containers from a shallow depression that is slow to refill.

Negative consequences of the collection of water:

  • Contaminated Water: Unless the water is obtained from a well-situated and properly constructed well, the water may be contaminated with animal and human waste. Diarrhea is a major killer of young children in the developing world. Diseases related to poor sanitation and water include cholera, dysentery, typhoid, bilharzia, guinea worm, hookworm, trachoma and scabies. (Thanks to the Carter Center, guinea worm is nearly eradicated in Africa.)
  • Violence: Women may have to walk miles–often arising before dawn to begin the trek. They may be with other women or alone, leaving them vulnerable to rape and other forms of assault, including attack by wild animals.
  • Physical Consequences: The typical jerrycan filled with water weighs approximately 40 lbs. Women carry this load either on their heads or their backs. This has long-term consequences such as neck problems, scoliosis, and pelvic deformities that can interfere with childbirth.
  • Children’s Health: A surprising new finding from Stanford researchers is that there is a direct correlation between the time a mother spends fetching water and the risk of illness and mortality among children. The authors speculate that it may be because longer fetching times may mean that less water is hauled. Not enough water may be available for hygiene. Also, mothers will have less time to spend caring for the health of their children, or for earning income that might pay for more nutritious diets and improved health care. Health problems that are simple to diagnose and treat in developed countries can be deadly in areas where clinics and basic health care are unavailable.
  • Opportunity Cost: This is the price women and families pay for what doesn’t get done while a woman is collecting water. Perhaps the most devastating cost is when girls miss school or don’t go to school at all because they are needed to haul water or care for younger siblings while their mothers haul water.



“..cutting the walking time to a water source by just 15 minutes can reduce under-five mortality of children by 11 percent and slash the prevalence of nutrition-depleting diarrhea by 41 percent.”

– Study by Amy Pickering and Jennifer Davis, Stanford


In order to be sustainable, water projects need to be carefully planned with the full involvement of the community. Many organizations have tried to help villages by drilling a well and installing a pump. But a study by Sustainable Water Services at Scale, carried out in 21 African countries, found that 36 percent of pumps were not working. Parts are not available, and local villagers were neither trained nor equipped to do the work.

But true sustainability means maximizing the collection, storage, and usage of water. Rather than depending on a well, there are other means, such as storing the abundant water in the wet season for use in the dry months. Depending on the local weather conditions, fog collectors can supply a surprising quantity of clean water. There are numerous rain-water harvesting and storage systems that can be implemented at the community level and are specifically designed for rural areas.



“Unlike big dams, which collect and store water over large areas, small-scale rainwater harvesting projects lose less water to evaporation because the rain or run-off is collected locally and can be stored in a variety of ways.”

– UN Environmental Programme, 2006




Sanitation, or the lack thereof, is a significant issue in the developing world, both in rural and urban settings. In 2010, an estimated 2.5 billion people were still without improved sanitation. This includes most of Sub-Saharan Africa. Between 1990 and 2010, sanitation in that region only improved by 4 percent. Fifteen percent of the world’s population still practices open defecation in fields, forests, bushes, or bodies of water. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is 25 percent of the population. In Southern Asia, however, the percentage is even higher – 41 percent. Open defecation is most predominant in rural areas, and is still practiced by a majority of the rural population in 19 countries.

Lack of sanitation has profound consequences.

  • Disease: More than 2.2 million people in developing countries die from preventable diseases associated with lack of access to safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. Diseases linked to poor sanitation are the highest among the poor, especially school-age children. Diarrhea is the single biggest killer of children in Africa, and 90 percent of it is attributable to inadequate sanitation and dirty water. Every day, 2,000 children die from diarrhea in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Lost Educational Opportunities: Lack of sanitation facilities at schools means girls often miss out on education, especially when they are having their periods, as they would be shamed and ashamed should anyone become aware of their situation. Girls often drop out at the onset of puberty.
  • Danger to Women and Girls: Many women wait until dark to relieve themselves so they will have privacy, which can lead to health problems from retention of waste. But it also makes women and girls more vulnerable to sexual harassment, violence, and animal attacks.


There are several sustainable technologies that are available and actionable in the developing world, but require training and commitment. And a significant barrier to change is the inertia of custom. According to WaterAid, Improving sanitation is not just about physical infrastructure. Much is dependent on human behaviour change.


Forests, Deforestation and Cooking Fires

Women are responsible in the majority of rural communities for finding and hauling firewood. As with hauling water, they suffer physical problems from the load bearing, and are potentially subject to violence as they move further away from the village. And as with water, it takes time away from other, more productive activities.

The primary use for fuel is for cooking. Some cooking is done out-of-doors, but much of the cooking takes place inside the home, with little ventilation. There are significant health consequences to being exposed to the smoke, both for women and children.

According to the World Health Organization, three billion people worldwide cook and heat their homes with open fires and leaky stoves that burn biomass (wood, dung, and crop waste).

Nearly two million people die prematurely from illness attributable to this source of indoor air pollution -more than die from malaria. More than a million deaths are from chronic obstructive respiratory disease due to exposure. For children who die of pneumonia, 50 percent of their deaths are due to the particulate matter from indoor fires.

Women who are exposed to indoor smoke, compared to those who are not exposed, have double the risk of lung cancer. In addition, small children are occasionally burned on the hot stones or poorly made stoves.

In addition to the profound impact on time and health that collecting fuel entails, there are significant long-term environmental consequences.

  • Without the stabilization of vegetation such as trees and shrubs, the soil becomes subject to erosion by wind and water – further degrading the land.
  • When animal dung is used as fuel, it deprives the soil of valuable nutrients.
  • Methane and black carbon emitted by inefficient stove combustion are powerful climate change pollutants, according to the World Health Organization.

The continued practice of burning biomass at the current rate is unsustainable. Much work has been done in the past few years to design low cost and efficient cook stoves that can rival or exceed the cooking capacity of a fire pit. There are solar stoves and a number of other types of small cook stoves that remain cool to the touch on the outside. Some are designed to be locally produced. Others are produced commercially, but the cost is very low – within the range of many families.


Family Planning


If the problem of access to voluntary contraception is not addressed, progress in other areas toward creating a sustainable world will be meaningless. More than half of world’s population is under 25. In October 2011, the world’s population reached seven billion. The eight billion mark should be reached in 2025, and nine billion in 2044. This can only mean increasing pressure on forests and other habitats, more demand for shrinking energy sources, water, land, and food supplies, and accelerating species extinctions – both plants and animals.

According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website, there are 220 million women with an unmet need for effective contraception. Less than 20 percent of women in Sub-Saharan Africa and barely one-third of women in South Asia use modern contraceptives. In 2012, an estimated 80 million women in developing countries had an unintended pregnancy and at least one in four resorted to an unsafe abortion.




“The role of women as agents of change in their homes, places of work, and communities is often underplayed.  Yet their role is critical.  Women understand the inter-generational aspects of climate change and sustainable development.  We women think in time horizons that span the lives of our children and grandchildren.  We need to use this understanding to influence the political process and inject a much needed sense of urgency into the climate change negotiations.”

– Mary Robinson, Former president of Ireland and member of “The Elders”



The World Bank has done studies proving that developing countries would experience significant economic gains from increasing the participation of women in the formal economy. Development and sustainability are highly correlated with increasing the active participation of women. But without the ability to control their fertility, women will continue to be burdened with larger families than they can support. Resources may not be available for their daughters to go to school, and the cycle of generational poverty will continue. Generations of women will continue to have limited education and limited opportunity to become significant players in the formal economy.


These critical issues – water, sanitation, deforestation, and family planning – along with agriculture – are the major components of sustainability. In every instance, women are both the beneficiaries AND the key change agents. With education, training, and minimal resources, women can change the world.

Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her Green Belt Movement, an indigenous and grassroots organization of women in Kenya, which she created in 1977 to combat deforestation, restore fuel and prevent erosion.  Since then, over 51 million trees have been planted. In addition, over 30,000 women have been trained in forestry, food processing, bee-keeping, and other trades.

o Abdoulaye Diagne, François Joseph Cabral, Fatou Cissé and Anne‐Sophie Robilliard. “Assessing Development Strategies to Achieve the MDGs in The Republic of Senegal.” United Nations Department for Social and Economic Affairs. March 2011

o “Africa: Sub‐Saharan sanitation targets “two centuries away”. IRIN humanitarian news and analysis. 18 November 2011.‐Sub‐Saharan‐sanitation‐targets‐two‐centuries‐away

o “Facts and figures: Water, sanitation and hygiene links to health.” World Health Organization

o “Gender, Water, and Sanitation: A Policy Brief.” Interagency Task Force on Gender and Water. UN Water & the Interagency Network on Women and Gender Equality. June 2006.

o “In sub‐Saharan Africa, a shorter walk to water saves lives”. Short synopsis of the following article, which is not publicly available:‐saharan‐africa‐shorter‐walk‐water‐saves‐lives

o Pickering, Amy J. and Jennifer Davis. “Freshwater Availability and Water Fetching Distance Affect Child Health in Sub‐Saharan Africa”. Environmental Science & Technology, 2012, 46 (4), pp 2391–2397.

o “Indoor Air Pollution and Health”. Factsheet. World Health Organization. September 2011.

o “International Database – World Population: 1950‐2050”. United States Census Bureau. July 2011 Update.–1950-2050.html

o MacEachern, Diane. “Women Leave Rio+20 Motivated to Galvanize Sustainability Around Family Planning and

Reproductive Rights.” HuffPost Global Motherhood, July 2, 2012.


o “Millennium Development Goal drinking water target met.” Joint Press release: UNICEF & WHO. March 2012.

o The Millennium Development Goals Report 2012. United Nations.‐report‐2012.html

o “Progress on Sanitation and Drinking Water: 2012 Update”. UNICEF and World Health Organization. 2010.

o “Rainwater harvesting could end much of Africa’s water shortage, UN reports.” United Nations News Center. November

2006. ‐ .UTkWOhngRtI

o Robinson, Mary. “Why women are the world’s best climate change defense.” CNN, December 12, 2011.‐robinson‐women‐climate

o Rosenberg, Tina. “Keeping the Water Flowing in Rural Villages.” “Opinionator”, New York Times, Dec. 8, 2011.‐the‐water‐flowing‐in‐rural‐villages/

o “Sanitation Framework.” WaterAid. 2011.‐framework.pdf

o Senegal Data. Millennium Development Goals Indicators: The Official United Nations Site for MDG Indicators