01/21/21 | Ideas

Women And The Water Crisis: Why Tackling Two Top Global Challenges Will Be A Force Multiplier For Change

The world faces two grave challenges: the global water and sanitation crisis, and gender inequality – namely the health, educational, and economic disparities affecting women worldwide. These global crises are inextricably linked, but fortunately, so are their solutions. 

Over 2.6 billion people – seven times the U.S. population – lack access to clean drinking water and sanitation. Communities across every part of the globe are affected, and the toll on human life is simply staggering. Among these, women and girls are disproportionately affected, and with devastating impact.  Educational and economic potential are stunted due to the collective 200 million hours women spend collecting safe water every day. When time finding a place to relieve themselves is factored in, that figure surges to 266 million hours.

Because of this, women are left little to no time for school, work, or caring for a family, and are four times less likely than boys to regularly attend school. Ensuring that women no longer have to walk hours each day to collect water could enable 46,000 women to earn a college degree every day. By ensuring that all women are able to work, global GDP is projected to rise by $28 trillion annually. 

Just as the crises of a lack of access to clean water and sanitation and of gender inequality compound each other, the solutions are symbiotic. Women are the key to solving the water crisis —and this starts with guaranteeing that women have a seat at the decision-making table. This is why the co-authors of this article are coming together as three voices from the philanthropic and impact investing communities to advocate for increased investment in, and representation of, women.      

“Capitalism will not evolve and become a force for good if our mindset and approach does not change. Most often, women are not shaping and driving the decisions made in boardroom discussions determining the future of global capital markets and our society. And despite the critical role women play in designing and executing successful climate and systemic change solutions, they remain largely underfunded and underrepresented in key leadership roles and negotiations.” – Alix Lebec, Chief Investor Relations Officer, WaterEquity

According to a recent study by Boston Consulting Group, businesses founded by women deliver 2X higher revenue per dollar invested than those businesses founded by men. Ensuring there are more women in decision-making roles across every industry represents a much-needed shift towards the transformational leadership that is needed today. The global water crisis has also already demonstrated this momentum. Over 90% of low-income clients taking out small, affordable microloans to pay for improved water and sanitation solutions in their homes in emerging markets are women. And these microloans continue to be repaid at the rate of 97-99% within 12-24 months.

“Despite the critical role women play in designing and executing successful climate and systemic change solutions, they remain largely underfunded and underrepresented in key leadership roles and negotiations

— Alix Lebec, Chief Investor Relations Officer, WaterEquity

Women’ representation is a critical value-add and is vital to our progress. Research from the United Nations Development Program on nearly 50 water projects across Asia and Africa shows that when women engage in shaping water policies and institutions, communities have greater and more sustainable access to water services. Similarly, when looking at over 100 water projects, the World Bank found that when initiatives included women, they were six to seven times more effective than those that did not.

So how do we make this a reality? We have found three solutions.

1. Empowering Women To Have A Seat At The Table And A Voice In Their Future

Women need to be seen as majority stakeholders for issues that heavily affect their livelihood, such as having access to clean water and sanitation. Research shows that the biggest bottleneck preventing low-income consumers, namely women, from accessing safe water and sanitation is access to affordable financing. Water.org and WaterEquity address this financing gap through a simple, but powerful model: Water.org identifies and provides technical assistance and philanthropic start-up support to microfinance institutions keen to develop water and sanitation microloan portfolios for the first time for low-income families. Once these institutions are ready to scale their microloan portfolios or institutions are identified that do not require initial support from Water.org, WaterEquity steps in to provide debt capital to these financial institutions to meet the large-scale demand from low-income consumers in emerging markets. These microloans enable low-income consumers to pay for and install sustainable safe water and sanitation solutions in their homes, such as a water connection or toilet. These solutions lead to improved health outcomes, disease prevention, educational opportunity, economic security, and empower women to become stakeholders of their futures. Simply put, girls and women gain back hours per week previously lost to inaccessible water or sanitation in which they can attend school or focus on income-generating activities. 

A portrait of impact can be seen through WaterEquity’s investments with Annapurna, a microfinance institution based in Odisha, India: Kuni Swain is a mother, wife, and entrepreneur who lives in Balipatna, Odisha. Open defecation is common in the region as sanitation solutions such as toilets or pit latrines often require upfront capital that many families do not have access to. After learning this practice could be the cause of her children’s many infections, Kuni applied for a microloan from Annapurna to provide her with access to the affordable capital needed to construct a toilet in her home. Since constructing a private, in-home toilet, Kuni and her family have experienced a multitude of benefits, including a significant reduction in cases of diarrhea, cholera, and typhoid. This decrease in sanitation-related diseases has lowered her family’s medical expenses by 50 percent, and Kuni has earned back twelve hours per month by no longer traveling to search for a safe place to defecate. With this dramatic increase in saved time, Kuni – who runs a microenterprise – has been able to keep her shop open longer, increasing her business revenue by 10 to 15 percent every month. When women like Kuni have the critical financial support to secure household access to safe water or sanitation, we are ensuring a healthier, brighter future for generations ahead.

2.More Women Leading In The Fight Against The Global Water And Sanitation Crisis.  

Women are vastly underrepresented in the spheres that matter for advancing change in the water crisis — whether those be the halls of parliaments, the boardrooms of leading financial firms, the laboratories of top engineering firms, or the General Assembly of the United Nations. Women make up less than 17 percent of the WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) labor force in developing countries. 

“This can be changed through greater investments in girls’ STEM education, policies that encourage women to enter politics and government, and a greater commitment to fighting discrimination and bias against women in the workplace and in leadership positions. We also need to empower young women, particularly women of colour, who are fighting for climate change and are too often ignored, denigrated, and silenced.” Marilia Bezerra, Managing Director, Synergos

“We also need to empower young women, particularly women of colour, who are fighting for climate change and are too often ignored, denigrated, and silenced.

— Marilia Bezera, Managing Director, Synergos

3. Funding Directed To Issues That Affect Women, Including The Global Water And Sanitation Crisis. 

This begins by elevating more women to the boardroom. Investment in women’s economic empowerment currently represents just 2 percent of total assistance funding from developed countries. Too often, women-centric issues are overlooked both by private equity and philanthropy, in large part because there are not enough women in top decision-making roles in finance. 

At WaterEquity, our commitment to gender equality begins with the intentionality of our investments. We conduct a gender equity analysis for every potential borrower to better understand the role of women as clients, employees, and leaders within the organization. Since our inception, we’ve invested $68 million in capital to on-the-ground financial Institutions and water and sanitation enterprises spanning 30 investments across three countries.  93 percent of individuals directly supported by our investments are women. 

“From a funder’s perspective, access to clean water and sanitation are issues that disproportionally affect women and girls, and remain chronically underfunded—even after water and sanitation investments have proven to have a 4X economic return for every dollar invested. WaterEquity’s gender-lens approach to water and sanitation investments and ability to unleash systemic change are some of the key reasons why we support their efforts. They view gender equality not as an indirect impact of their investments, but as a core component of their strategy.” –  Kristen Venick, Director of Corporate Giving, Niagara Bottling

“From a funder’s perspective, access to clean water and sanitation are issues that disproportionally affect women and girls, and remain chronically underfunded—even after water and sanitation investments have proven to have a 4X economic return for every dollar invested.

— Kristen Venick, Director of Corporate Giving, Niagara Bottling

Addressing global gender inequality and developing international economies cannot be accomplished without clean water for all. Ensuring equitable access to clean water and sanitation cannot be accomplished without empowering and elevating women in their communities and in companies. 

We believe that if we harness the world’s greatest capital resources, we can tackle the world’s greatest challenges — including both the water crisis, and the crisis of gender disparity. As Greta Thunberg says, “we cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself.”

Let’s get to work.

GenderSmart is committed to highlighting great work that is underway to address the climate emergency with a climate and gender lens. If you haven’t already, please let us know what you are up to, and we’ll be sure to amplify it.

This piece originally appeared on Gender Smart Investing, and was published here with permission.

Alix Lebec

Alix Lebec

Alix Lebec is an entrepreneur and strategic adviser to the business, philanthropic, and impact investing communities. With nearly two decades of experience across Europe, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and the U.S., Alix’s expertise is rooted in understanding global poverty and solutions that work, and in advising individuals, corporations, foundations, financial institutions, and entrepreneurs on how to achieve their greatest impact through philanthropy and impact investing. From the World Bank, to the Clinton Global Initiative, Water.org, and WaterEquity, Alix developed and led high-performing teams, and helped pioneer and scale global social impact innovations helping women and families living in poverty. Working closely with Water.org and WaterEquity's CEO and Co-Founders, Gary White and Matt Damon, Alix helped build and scale both organizations, developing a $200M+ portfolio of highly impactful philanthropic partnerships and investments. Most recently, Alix founded Lebec Consulting to address fundamental gaps in equality, philanthropy, and impact investing. Alix holds a Master of Science in Social Policy from the London School of Economics and a Bachelor of Arts in International Business from the American University of Paris.

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