Hurricane Maria put a disproportionate burden on women

A woman collects water from a natural spring created by the landslides in a mountain next to a road in Corozal, Puerto Rico, on September 24, 2017. Before the hurricane, most households in Puerto Rico enjoyed indoor plumbing and reliable running water. When the electricity and the water failed, the roughly 3.3 million people on the island struggled to find a consistent supply of water—in some areas, for months after the storm. Photo: Ricardo Arduengo /AFP/Getty Images

After Hurricane María struck Puerto Rico, and families struggled to endure without power or water for months, women shouldered more of the burden.

One year ago this week, Hurricane María knocked down the aging power grid in Puerto Rico and disabled water systems across the island. In the weeks following the storm, millions of people were left without power and reliable access to potable water. In many communities, especially in the central highlands, it was months before the water came back. As the crisis dragged on, Oxfam wanted to find the answers to some urgent questions: 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. 

Women were usually the ones who spent hours wringing sodden towels by hand and hanging them to dry, carrying containers of water into the kitchen, bathing children in buckets, or washing floors with rainwater collected in cans. It was exhausting, and demoralizing.

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. The Weight of Water on Women: The Long Wake of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico explores the thesis that natural disasters deliver a disproportionate blow to women.

“The lack of water made daily activities extremely difficult for households in Puerto Rico. Simple chores--like cooking, laundry, and cleaning--became monumental tasks. It’s difficult to fully comprehend the toll the lack of water took on the countless women across the island – physically and emotionally,” said María Concepción, Oxfam’s Program Director in Puerto Rico.  

Every person interviewed for the Oxfam study said that being without water was much worse than being without power. At the same time, the women of Puerto Rico also showed remarkable strength, resilience, inventiveness, and community devotion in the wake of the hurricane. They are also leading the way to new approaches to sustainable and resilient alternatives: many invented homemade solutions for the lack of water, including rigging a pulley system from outdoor containers into the house and rearranging home plumbing. 

The Oxfam study provides a series of recommendations to help guide water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs and help conduct them in a gender-sensitive manner, including strategies for disaster risk reduction and emergency programs that are responsive to community-identified problems.

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