From Dirty Wells to Endocrine Disrupters: Covering Women, Water, and Health at SEJ 2012October 28, 2012 By Schuyler Null
Access to safe water is often taken for granted in developed countries. But last week at the 22nd annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, panelists argued that the impact of dirty water on women’s health is an important but neglected story, not only in developing countries like Nigeria, but also in the United States.
Long-Term, Low-Level Exposure in the United States
Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the connection between the environment and human health is clear. “Every disease we get is a combination of us – our genetics and predispositions – and our environment,” she said.
The United States is fortunate to have very good tap water, Sass said. But the system is under threat from several avenues.
As herbicides have proliferated, long-term, low-level exposure to various industrial and agricultural chemicals in public water supplies has become a concern, said Sass. Some of these chemicals contain endocrine disruptors, which can have impacts on fertility and, if ingested by pregnant mothers, can seriously affect prenatal development, among other effects. Sass and others have called on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to alter federal regulations to better restrict and monitor these chemicals, but they haven’t updated any drinking water limits in over 10 years, she said.
In addition, water regulatory and testing bodies – the EPA and U.S. Geological Survey – are being caught up in broader anti-government political undercurrents, said Sass. Americans need to “protect our government scientists” and allow them to do their jobs, she said; without them, the public is reliant on industry-funded experts with ingrained conflicts of interest.
Culture and Corruption in Nigeria
Nigeria faces water issues of another magnitude. Ameto Akpe, an energy and foreign affairs correspondent for Business Day in Lagos, said that water and sanitation is the biggest environmental health challenge in Nigeria today, where environmentally-linked diseases like dysentery, malaria, skin infections, and diarrhea kill more than a half a million people each year.
“Women are more vulnerable – for one thing the women and girls are primarily responsible for getting water for the home,” she said. “They have the first contact” with dirty water in wells, streams, and ponds. After collection, water is often stored outside homes, where the sun provides some disinfection. As a result, women and girls have higher incidences of bacterial infections and water-borne disease than men and boys in the same households.
“Women are also more prone to get infections from defecating in the open, using unsanitary toilets, or not bathing regularly,” Akpe added in an email. “You find that where water provisions are inadequate, sanitary conditions are poor; so girls often drop out of school because there are inadequate toilet facilities or when they begin their menstrual cycles.”
“Most people are aware that, one way or another, most of our health issues are related to the environment,” Akpe said. But reporting on this problem can still be difficult.
First, “there are not enough resources to do in-depth reporting.” Staff is short and there are many competing headlines. Second, there are cultural barriers: Nigeria is a secretive society where you don’t question your elders, she said, and women’s issues in particular are difficult to discuss. “Women are second-class citizens,” she said.
To report on these stories, Akpe has secured additional funding streams, including a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to focus on water in West Africa. She’s also had success pitching water and sanitation stories to her editors as reporting on endemic corruption and misuse of public funds, rather than just health issues.
Despite Nigeria’s oil wealth, 70 percent of the population lives well below the poverty line, she said. Millions of dollars designated for infrastructure projects every year, but “80 to 85 percent” is lost to corruption, said Akpe. For example, as Akpe reported for the Pulitzer Center, a 2008 attempt to build a water treatment plant in the north-central Nigerian city of Makurdi resulted in an unfinished facility and the disappearance of $6 million. Hundreds of thousands of people in the city still rely on either high-priced water delivery or untreated water drawn straight from the Benue River.
Poor Water, Poor People on the U.S.-Mexico Border
In the United States, “we have been neglecting the environment and health for a long time” along the Mexico border, said Irasema Coronado, a professor in the political science department at the University of Texas, El Paso.
Today more than 400,000 Texans live in unplanned housing developments along the border called colonias, she said. Water is already a luxury in the region, but the unplanned nature of the colonias makes it worse. Land is often sold at extremely cheap prices without any access to utilities, forcing families to buy water elsewhere at varying levels of sanitation and cost.
Women are especially affected, for many of the same reasons as in Nigeria: They are usually the ones that collect water, cook, bathe children, and wash clothes.
Focusing interventions solely on women, however, may not be the most successful approach, said Coronado, due to cultural and sustainability issues. To break the gender barrier, she suggested framing the problem as a family issue to motivate women who tend to be more concerned about their children’s health than their own (e.g., helping people afford family health clinic visits, not just for the mother).
Other barriers to improving water and health in the colonias include low incomes, intermittent work, large families, a tendency to build as you go, and varying degrees of legality (“they don’t want to bring attention to their household”), Coronado said. But perhaps the most important is lack of access to credit. “Life in the United States is wonderful and good because we have access to credit,” she said – but imagine trying to buy a house or car or healthcare in cash only.
We need better water services on the U.S. side, Coronado said, and greater focus on poverty alleviation. Humanitarian reasons aside, these people are the future in Texas, she said – how do you want them to live?
“The Most Important Part Is the Conversation”
The session was only the tip of the iceberg for these issues, but freelance journalist and former Wilson Center scholar Elizabeth Grossman summed up the common themes: Lack of safe drinking water is a challenge in both developing and developed countries; it disproportionately affects women’s health; and it is often tied to poverty. In addition, it is a vastly under-covered story in the United States and abroad.
Although U.S. reporters might shy away from covering the problems in Nigeria and West Africa because they seem insurmountable or irrelevant to their audiences, Akpe said she’s seen international news coverage prompt discussion in Nigeria and attention from the government, which can lead to more sustainable fixes than relying on non-government organizations and aid.
“The most important part is the conversation,” Akpe said. “Change won’t come until we take ownership of our problems.”
Sources: National Institutes of Health, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Texas Secretary of State, World Health Institute.
Photo Credit: “Refilling water bucket from a well in Mauritania,” courtesy of Oxfam International.