The Weight of Water on Women: The Long Wake of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico
Identifying and analyzing the gendered impacts of Hurricane María on WASH practices in rural communities of Puerto Rico
Hurricane María underscored that natural disasters deliver a disproportionate blow to women. In Puerto Rico, the disruption of modern water and electrical infrastructure cast this phenomenon into stark relief: as households lost the most basic services, it fell more to women to do the arduous labor of caretaking and maintaining households without water and power. In the rural highlands, Oxfam found women shouldering extraordinary physical, financial, and emotional burdens—but also leading the way to new approaches to sustainable and resilient alternatives.
After the hurricane struck in September 2017, Oxfam worked with researchers from the University of Cambridge (UK) and the University of Puerto Rico to answer questions around gendered impacts of the disaster on practices around water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) in rural Puerto Rico. How did the sudden loss of water impact daily life? More specifically, did the sudden loss of water supply affect women differently from men?
The answer, it turned out, was simple: Yes. In fact, the impact was substantially disproportionate for women. Because women are usually managers of the household—responsible for taking care of people and domestic systems—they were the ones who shouldered most of the burdens of managing water needs. Men did indeed feel the pinch—especially around finding and transporting water—but they were typically not the ones carrying the full physical and emotional weight of managing all the household demands.