Water and Work

Whether you are a fisherman, a farmer, or a factory worker, your livelihood depends on water.

If you make your living fishing, your harvest could be greatly diminished by water pollution. As a farmer, your crop yield might suffer from water scarcity. As a factory worker without access to good sanitation, you may contract diseases due poor water quality.

Each year, the United Nations observes World Water Day on the 22nd of March. This year’s World Water Day theme, “Water and Jobs,” explores how many jobs depend on having enough safe water. 2016’s World Water Day goal is, “Better Water, Better Jobs.”World Water Day Logo - 2016

Water quality and quantity directly affects workers in all fields. Unsanitary conditions and unsafe water lead to illness and absenteeism.

Water and work intersect in the management of water resources for agricultural and industrial use.

Some water management jobs are so crucial that they must be performed without fail—even without pay.

Water carriers

Even though carrying water is a job, it is often unpaid work.

Women Carrying Water in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan - Credit Art Wolfe, Mint Images, AFP

Women Carrying Water in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan

Water carriers, usually women, bear the responsibility of sourcing water for their families.

What modern water-carriers do for their families is often taken for granted, even though it makes family life possible.

The work of water carriers in rural India has been made more difficult by diversion of water resources to urban areas.

Water carriers source and transport water in a labour-intensive and time-consuming way. Indian women spend about a quarter of each day carrying water. The hours these women spend carrying water mean that they have less time to learn other skills, or on their own pursuits. It also means less time spent on education, and literacy statistics reflect this.

The Wello WaterWheel revolutionises water carrying.

The Wello WaterWheel

Inventions like Wello’s WaterWheel can lighten the load for Indian women. However, better water-carrying equipment cannot make more water available, nor can it make water safe.

Untreated water sourced from rivers and streams is often polluted and contaminated. Despite their efforts at this back-breaking labour, women are often left with water that brings disease to their families.

Carrying water is something that can be done more safely and efficiently by a centralised body, such as a government agency. Instead of being sourced by hand and then carried on foot to its destination, water can be pumped from the source, stored and treated, and transported via a network of pipes to its consumers. However, the infrastructure is often lacking—especially in rural areas.

For this reason, rural women are often relegated to the crucial, difficult, thankless, and time-consuming process of water carrying.

Fisher Folk

Another important water-related job is fishing. Like water-carrying, fishing has a very long history, with many indigenous methods still in use.

Fisher folk who fish in traditional ways face threats to their livelihood due to poor water conditions. Small-scale fishing operations are directly affected by issues with both the quantity and quality of water.

Industrial fishing methods are threatening traditional fishing livelihoods.

Traditional fishing methods

Not having enough water—or clean enough water—can make the work more difficult. In places where the water sources are diminished or drying up, fish habitats are disappearing.

Industrial fisheries utilise more resources than traditional fishing operations. Their industrialized methods tend to be more environmentally destructive.

This situation especially threatens the livelihood of independent, small-scale fishers.

In addition to this, agricultural irrigation projects cause coastal erosion. Fish habitats are further damaged and destroyed by pollution from urbanisation.

Water Quality and Wetlands

Pollution from plastics and other trash are certainly a problem.

But trash is not the only problematic waste.

Sewage treatment is an ever-growing problem. A recent report from the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi revealed that over 70% of India’s sewage goes untreated. This untreated human waste contaminates rivers, streams, lakes, and wetlands.

In many cases, the government lacks funds to pay for the electricity to run power-intensive waste treatment plants. This leads to environmental tragedies such as the mass destruction of wetlands.

Wetlands play a critical ecological role: They help purify water, control flooding, and stabilise shorelines. They also support some of the richest, most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet.

Wetlands are vital to fish populations [….] Wetlands serve as a food base, shelter, spawning and nursery areas, and for water filtration. […] Plants and other organic matter provide food for small aquatic insects, fish, and shellfish. […] Wetlands […] provide vegetated areas where fish can reproduce, hide from predators, and take refuge from inclement weather or other changes in the physical environment. Wetlands also filter out sediments and pollutants, providing the clean water that fish need. Thus, a network of abundant and healthy wetlands is vital to the survival of most fish species.

– National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Wetlands and Fish: Catch the Link

Foaming Bellandur Lake on Fire (Deccan Chronicle)

Bellandur Lake, part of the Bangalore Wetlands, foaming and on fire due to pollution (Deccan Chronicle)

The city of Bangalore, nicknamed the ‘Silicon Valley of India’, has lost the majority of its wetlands to poor sewage management. In the fifty years from 1962 to 2012, nearly 85% of Bangalore’s once-lush wetlands disappeared due to urban expansion.

The impact to fisher folk is clear: A significant decrease in fish habitats means that there are fewer fish to catch. Catching them becomes more difficult because they are no longer abundant. The fish that remain may not be as healthy as fish from better habitats, or fetch as good of a price. In the end, this means less money and a poorer standard of living for fishing families.

In competition with larger, industrial fisheries, whose activities directly and indirectly deplete the supply of fish, family fishing operations face great hardship. The industrial fisheries, who cull tons of fish at a time, damage and destroy fish habitats.

Since whole families tend to be involved in fishing activities, including the women of the family, these issues impact entire families.

Women and Family Fishing

Indian Women Fishing in Indrangar Village, Satpura Valley

Indian women fishing in Indrangar Village, Satpura Valley

Nearly half of those who work in India’s fisheries are women. Traditionally, although some women do fish, women are more involved in processing activities than directly in the act of fishing. For example, women tend to make the fishing nets. After the fish are caught, women prepare the fish for market by salting and drying them.

Any threat to family fishing livelihood means further marginalisation of women, who already face many obstacles in becoming economically self-sufficient.

Fishing as a Way of Life

It might seem natural for fisher folk in economic decline to pursue a different livelihood. However, even more so than farmers, fishers are historically not prone to finding other work.

Fishing tends to be the dominant profession in certain areas (hence the term “fishing village”), as well as a multi-generational livelihood. If you assume that you will work in a fishery like your parents and grandparents before you, you will probably not pursue formal education or occupational training outside of the fishing industry.

Fishing families are therefore more vulnerable to poverty, if fishing becomes an unsuccessful venture due to environmental and economic changes.


Decreases in groundwataer and wells

Decreases in groundwataer and wells

Like fisher folk, family farmers face many challenges. A lot of these are related to water.

Especially for small-scale farmers, the impact of rapidly-disappearing water resources is keenly felt.

With water resources scarcer than ever, family farmers may no longer be able to rely strictly on traditional farming methods. Instead, family farmers must learn about alternative methods of water management.

Irrigation in India

Currently, about 65% of arable land has no irrigation. Farmers rely on the monsoon season and groundwater to provide the water they need to successfully produce crops. Drought negatively affects growing, and government resources to help alleviate drought conditions are not always well-organised.

However, irrigation efforts can also be a problem.

1.3 million tube wells have been drilled in the Indo-Gangetic Basin. Ninety thousand more well-drilling applications were awaiting approval as of 2014.

Government farm subsidies have made this possible, but it can be a curse in disguise.

Farmer Gubinder Singh with tube well

Farmer Gupinder Singh with tube well

Farmers like Gupinder Singh have noticed a decline in both the groundwater levels and the water quality as a result of the recent spate of well-drilling. Over an eight year period, Singh has seen water pollution and contamination. Boreholes have also dropped down a few hundred feet during that same timeframe.

With water-intensive crops such as rice, and little government oversight, the water levels are dropping rapidly. This is especially true in Punjab, where 97% of farms are irrigated.

Irrigation must be done correctly to be effective. An irregular field surface, for example, means that flood irrigation water will not spread evenly. Some parts of the field will be overwatered, and some will not receive enough water. Further, flood irrigation tends to waste a lot of water.

Some farmers are using government subsidies to try newer irrigation methods, such as drip irrigation. Drip irrigation is estimated to save about 70% of the water used by traditional flood irrigation methods.

Drip Irrigation

Drip Irrigation

Drip irrigation, also called “micro-irrigation”, places the water right at the roots of the plants. Not only can much less water be used, but the fields remain easier to navigate in the absence of excess water. Crops are less prone to over-ripening and spoilage when the amount and placement of the water is controlled through drip irrigation.

Farming Difficulties and Legacy

Drought in Osmanabad, courtesy of the Indian ExpressDespite some technological advances which have improved farming by increasing access to water, many farmers still deal with ongoing water problems. Difficult farming conditions due to inadequate water have sometimes led to the deepest despair for farmers.

Like fishing, farming as a livelihood tends to run in families. Children may inherit the land their ancestors farmed. Children of farmers tend toward some occupational mobility. However, with the inheritance of land, there is a very concrete tie to the occupation of their ancestors.

Unfortunately, in times of drought or other hardship, legacy farmers are more susceptible to poverty and more arduous labour. That is why water availability and quality so affects the family farmers’ quality of life.

Factory Workers

Water-Related Deaths - 396 x 560Globally, nearly 40 workers per hour die from water-related diseases.

It is the responsibility of factory owners to make sanitation readily available to workers. This primarily means toilet and handwashing facilities, as well as a safe source of potable water for workers.

Workers who are subject to poor sanitary conditions within their factories have an increased chance of suffering from water-related diseases. In addition to their physical suffering, they lose wages when they are too sick to come into work.

According to the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad’s Paycheck India project, only a small percentage of workers are covered by the ‘Employee State Insurance Act’, which would provide paid sick leave. Even those who get paid sick leave do not receive their full wage when they cannot work due to illness.

Many of these factory workers are poorly paid. They can ill-afford to take off from work when they are ill. Faced with the possibility of reduced wages, they may opt to come to work even while sick.

Working while ill can mean spreading illness to others. One person with cholera, for example, can expose co-workers to the disease through water and food contamination. Poor hygiene and sanitation can cause an epidemic.

Organizations such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) try to make businesses more aware of sustainability and sanitation issues. The WBCSD created a WASH (WAter, Sanitation, and Hygiene) pledge to hold corporations responsible for facilitating and promoting sanitation and hygiene. One of LEAF Society’s partners on WASH campaigns and initiatives, the German chemical company BASF, signed the WBCSD’s WASH pledge in 2014.

Water Utility Workers

Water utility workers essentially serve the same function as water carriers, but with important differences.

Bubul Saikia working intently at his job

Bubul Saikia working intently at his job

Water utility workers transport water on a much larger scale. Water utility workers do not transport water on foot, as most water carriers do (particularly in rural areas). Instead, water utility workers build and maintain a mechanical system of water management, using plumbing and water storage tanks.

In addition to the water-carrier function of transporting water from its source to where it is needed, water utility workers also test, treat, and purify water. They possess the education and technological resources to do so.

Unlike water carriers, water utility workers tend to be compensated for their work. This is because their work is performed for the municipality or for utility companies, rather than for individual families.

Water utility workers, such as those who work for the Public Health Engineering Department, also get more recognition for their efforts than water carriers do. For example, water workers in Assam were recently honoured for their grassroots efforts in providing clean water to their communities.

Sanitation, Hygiene, and Beyond

Clean water in our communities is an important goal for LEAF Society. We recognise that this can be achieved through good sanitation, as well as education.

LEAF Society Hand-washing demonstration (October 2015)

LEAF Society Hand-washing demonstration (October 2015)

LEAF Society teaches and promotes sanitation and hygiene as ways to ensure good water quality. The protection of water and food from contamination is essential for human health.

LEAF Society also instructs people to use the Right to Information (RTI) to solicit information from the government. Farmers and fisher folk might use this information to gain a better understanding of their resources, including water availability.

Help us celebrate World Water Day by sharing this post, and bringing others into the conversation.

Let’s talk about how we can improve livelihoods by bettering the water situation in India.

And feel free to contact us for more information about how we can turn the tide for those whose livelihoods and quality of life depend on the quality and quantity of water.



Michelle Baumgartner is a freelance writer and editor. One of her current projects is an internship with LEAF Society. Michelle’s company, StellaWriting LLC, provides blogging, online content, and marketing materials for businesses and nonprofit organizations.


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