Women and Water

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By Signy Gerrard

“Everyone thinks we have all this water,” says Jyoti Phartiyal of the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health, when speaking of Canadians’ attitude towards one of our most essential resources - an attitude that reflects not only an assumption that supplies of water are endless and available, but safe for everyone.

This is an assumption that new research from NNEWH examines in a website launched October 6, 2009  – www.womenandwater.ca – that focuses on water, women, and their relationship in Canada today. The idea for the site was born while NNEWH led a program-wide research initiative on women and water in Canada, exploring Canadian water issues and the implications for women’s health.

When asked about the gaps they found in research in Canada, Phartiyal immediately responds with “the biggest gap was the lack of gender analysis. It was just completely missing.” A “gendered” perspective was often limited to health as it related to fetuses or new babies. This gap was not just limited to Canadian research; few resources gave a gendered perspective on the issue of water in any developed countries. Most research discussed the relationship between women and water only in developing nations. While those studies could provide helpful information on some of the possible gender dimensions of water issues, the issues are likely to look very different in Canada.

Believing that women have not only a historical and spiritual relationships with water, as well as potentially different effects on their health, the researchers developing the website decided to further the discussion on women and Canadian water policy by creating a central online location for information on the topic, featuring research from NNEWH, the Women’s Health Contribution Program, and key outside sources. As well as acting as an important resource for academics and researchers, plans are to produce more documents in plain language geared towards policy makers and the general public in the future.

The reports currently available on the website are organized into three themes of recent research:  Aboriginal issues, Contaminants, and Privatization. In summer 2010 NNEWH will release the next volume in the Women & Water in Canada series on the gendered implications of chronic exposures to pharmaceuticals and disinfection by-products.

Aboriginal water issues:
According to womenandwater.ca, “as of December 31st 2008, 106 First Nations communities in Canada were under drinking water advisories” – a dramatic example of the inequality of access to a vital resource. In some cases, these warnings have lasted for years. As stated in the report from the Chiefs of Ontario, Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge and Source Water Protection Final Report “in many First Nation cultures, the women of the community traditionally carry primary responsibility for water.” Clearly, research needs to explore the social and cultural as well as physical health implications of poor water quality for women.

The first report on this theme was created in partnership with the Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence. Released in April 2009, the Boil Water Advisory Mapping Project looks at the issue of water quality by examining the data available on boil water advisories in Canada – a recommendation typically made when the public has been alerted to take precautionary measures, (e.g. boil the water, at a rolling boil, for one full minute) to protect against a potential threat to health in public drinking water.. Without a standard measure of water quality in place, advisories provide a quick, although imperfect measure.

As well as reviewing these advisories, the Boil Water Advisory Mapping Project highlights the important data gaps that need to be filled on topics like waterborne illnesses, the cost of water to consumers, and gender analysis in all of these issues. Future work in this area will focus on increasing the understanding of water’s meanings in Aboriginal communities, looking particularly at gender implications, as well as issues with regulations, funding, infrastructure, and more.

Contaminants in water:
The outbreaks of disease in Walkerton and North Battleford, when E.Coli and cryptosporidium invaded the water supply, have thrown the issue of contaminants in water into the spotlight in recent years. While Microbiological contaminants such as the ones were found in those cases remain the biggest threat; however there is growing concern over the issue of chemical contamination of water. While this form of contamination may not result in immediate and dramatic health effects, the cumulative effects of long-term exposure are a serious concern.

These cumulative exposures were researched and discussed in two soon-to-be released projects – in “The Gendered Effects of Chronic Low Dose Exposures to Chemicals in Drinking Water,” by looking at data across the country, researchers concluded that although Canada’s drinking water is “for the most part safe,” the quality was tied to where you live.  In the second project, “Gendered Implications of Chronic Exposures to Pharmaceuticals and Disinfection By-Products in Typical Drinking Water” looks at what is released into our water from drugs and everyday personal care products, and by-products used in water treatment, how they interact, and what the implications are.  

Privatization of water:
The question of whether water is a human right or a commodity, and the implications of those interpretations, is addressed in the research theme of Privatization. This research area addresses the rise of private sector involvement in the water supply networks, and the more business-oriented values that the sector brings with it. What do these shifts mean for women? As primary caretakers, most often responsible for the health of their families, as well as their personal health, women are likely to be affected significantly by these trends.

The Significance of Privatization and Commercialization Trends for Women’s Health, a project in partnership with the Council of Canadians, supported by the Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence and Women and Health Care Reform, looks at the push to privatize water in Canada. It examines larger philosophical questions such as whether water should be privatized at all, and more practical issues such as water management models, privatization experiences and threats in Canada. The project also looks at what privatization may mean for women’s health, particularly Aboriginal women’s health.


Signy Gerrard is the Director of Communications at the Canadian Women’s Health Network.

Visit the website:

Read the reports:
Privatization of water:

Contaminants in water:

Aboriginal water issues: