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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Climate Change, Water Insecurity, and Gender Inequality in Uganda

Three women carrying basins on their heads. Photo credit: Ninno JackJr/Unspash

Three women carrying basins on their heads. Photo credit: Ninno JackJr/Unspash

Judith Li, ‘23

Photo credit: Ninno JackJr/Unsplash

Judi (Zhuyu) Li ’23 graduated with an economics and sociology major, with minors in environmental studies and sustainability, and was a 2022-23 Environmental Ethics Fellow with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

Rural communities in Uganda face the problem of unstable water supply. Climate change exacerbates water insecurity, and gender inequality makes women disproportionately impacted by this problem. Ethical analysis using the common good lens helps to explain why the free-rider problem exists in the maintenance and repair of water facilities, and what measures might be taken to solve this difficulty. Adaptive strategies toward water insecurity include solutions from the community (micro) level and governmental (macro) level. 

The Impact of Climate Change on Water Supply

Because of climate change, the instability of water supply has become a pressing problem in many places around the world. In Uganda, Lake Bunyonyi can serve as an example. Lake Bunyonyi is an important ecological habitat for unique local fish and birds such as the threatened gray crowned crane [1]. It also provides the water supply for the districts Kisoro and Kabale, which have the second highest population density in Uganda, and provides resources to local industries such as papyrus harvesting and wetland crop farming. Changes in precipitation and evapotranspiration rates are challenging the balance of the current ecosystem and these changes could reduce the size of the lake until it dries up. Research about the future surface runoff and evapotranspiration in the catchment predicts that mean monthly air temperature will increase by approximately 1.5 to 3.0 °C in the mid-term future (2041-2070) and by roughly 2.0 to 4.5 °C in the far future (2071-2100) [1]. Due to higher temperatures, annual precipitation is generally projected to change in the range of −25% to +75%, which may accelerate the dessication of the lake. The actual evapotranspiration rate may increase by approximately 8 millimeters per month [1].  

To local communities, the short-term impact of seasonal water supply is a more direct problem. Kisakye and Bruggen’s research on climate change’s effect on water saving from rainwater harvesting systems finds that water savings are reduced from December to May and increased from June to November [2], which disrupts the traditional patterns of water savings. The March to May rainy season will be most affected in the future, possibly decreasing by more than 50% in the 2070s [2]. Other research confirms the findings that extreme rainfall will happen from September to December [3], and that droughts will be more frequent in dry seasons due to increasing regional temperatures [4, 5]. Regional conflicts may also rise because of water insufficiency. For example, different pastoralist communities started to raid each other in the Karamojong region and steal livestock because of increasing competition over land and water [6]. 

Reduced Rural Resilience toward Water Insecurity 

Facing the instability of the water supply, rural communities are less resilient toward climate change compared to rural regions in developed countries and urban regions in Uganda. The majority of the rural communities are self-sufficient in terms of food, relying on farming crops and raising cattle. They are more vulnerable to unpredictable extreme weather and climate change because of their means of subsistence. The infrastructure for agriculture, housing, industry, and transportation is too weak to handle major environmental changes. The pillar industries of Uganda are highly dependent on natural resource use and primary production. Over 76 percent of the workforce is employed in subsistence and rain-fed agriculture, in which coffee and fishing are notably climate-sensitive [6]. The national support of disaster management and financial resources is limited for each individual considering the large affected population base.  

On a community level, women are disproportionately affected by the water insecurity problem. Research shows that women suffer more health consequences because of water, sanitation, and hygiene insufficiency [7, 8]. Poor or lack of sanitary facilities exposes women to a higher risk of water-borne diseases (e.g., diarrhea, dysentery, cholera) and social pressure (e.g., shame, harassment, attack) [9]. 

As the major water fetchers, users, and managers in households, women bear the burden of carrying water for long distances at the expense of other economic activities and educational opportunities. As water becomes more scarce in the dry seasons, women need to spend more time fetching water. Following the social norms, men dominate the arena of planning, budgeting, and decision-making about water and sanitation development in the communities, and might not take into account women’s concerns [9]. Illiteracy, domestic obligations, inadequate sensitization, and women’s subordinate cultural status impede women’s voices when it comes to water management and operations, even though women are typically more experienced and informed due to their lived knowledge of water. The International Fund for Agricultural Development lists four reasons for the absence of women in water management: 1) restrictions on the membership of Water User Associations, which are community-based organizations to operate well-performing irrigation systems, 2) women’s hesitation to be part of organizations dominated by men, 3) lack of information available to women, and 4) lack of gender awareness by the project staff involved in establishing Water User Associations [10]. 

Common Good and Free-Rider Problem 

The impact of climate change has made stable water supply a common interest. As one adaptive strategy, many communities, non-profit organizations, non-governmental organizations, social enterprises, and local governments build water facilities such as communal shallow wells, boreholes, and water tanks to provide water from underground and harvest rainwater in the rainy seasons. Such water facilities benefit the common good of the community. 

The common good refers to the shared utilities, facilities, and institutions in society that members of a community provide to all members “in order to fulfill a relational obligation they all have to care for certain interests that they have in common” [11]. In other words, these facilities fulfill and strengthen the common interests of the community. The common good requires members of society to sacrifice a certain degree of self-interest, for example, paying higher taxes or restraining self-behaviors that hurt others’ interests. Some examples of facilities or resources that benefit the common good are public libraries, transportation infrastructure, clean air and water, etc.

In the case of water facilities, wells, boreholes, and water tanks are common goods shared by and beneficial to the whole community. Some are built by governments through taxes, and some are fundraised by the community. The operation and maintenance of water facilities is itself a common good and requires some community members, if not all, to spend more time and financial resources on behalf of the whole community. For example, the Water and Environment Sector Performance report in 2020 stated an 85% functionality of rural water sources in Uganda [12]. A common reason for the malfunctioning was a lack of financial resources to maintain and repair the water infrastructure. Etongo et al. indicate that, 52% percent of households had never made any financial contributions to water user’s committees (WUCs) in villages, while 34.6% did so on an ad hoc basis [12]. 

Why does this lack of maintenance occur? This socio-technical malfunction is due to the free-rider problem, which happens when some members of a community do not contribute their fair share to the costs of a shared resource, so the resource or service becomes unusable [13]. Two main reasons the free-rider problem occurs are 1) people feel it to be not worthwhile to pay for the frequent breakdown and slow repairs, and 2) people feel it is unfair when village chairpersons allocate the water access based on their favor, not people’s contribution to the collective fund [12]. 

Gender roles also contribute to this free-rider problem. Richard Asaba’s field research, “Gender and representation in local water governance in rural Uganda,” illustrates that men are enthusiastic to attend pre-construction meetings because of potential financial returns such as transport and lunch allowance [14]. Women, on the other hand, attend post-construction meetings more often because of their responsibilities of fetching water and their suffering when the wells break down. As a key informant phrased it in the study: women “possess a spirit of ownership of the water facility that is unlike that of men. Men have little time for water-related community work.” [14]. Women care about the maintenance of water stations more than men because fetching water is their daily job. Therefore, even though many men do not contribute to a fair share of maintaining and repairing water facilities, they still enjoy the benefits of functional water services, while the women must go further to find more water. 

Even so, women are discouraged from participating in WUCs because of a patriarchal culture that forbids and excludes women from civic engagement, stereotypes that privilege men’s representation, and gender roles that require women to fulfill domestic duties. Many women internalize the belief that men are better fit for the WUC positions. For example, they believe that men receive more respect and are better laborers. Men's stronger personality qualifies them to stop water misuse by children, clean and de-silt the wells, lift heavy hand pumps, and collect repair and maintenance fees. Additionally, even if nominated for leadership roles, women are often unwilling to accept because they believe they are not qualified, despite often having excellent experience and necessary skills [14]. 

Potential Solution

Climate change is making the water supply more unstable, exacerbating gender inequality, and trapping people in poverty. People in Uganda need to develop adaptive strategies to secure their water for agriculture, sanitation, and hygiene. Solutions are possible at both the micro and macro levels.

Community (Micro) Level

Women’s knowledge about local water conditions should be valued in the decision-making process in community committees. Because of their extensive experience, women know more about the location and pattern of water sources. For example, climate change has made some formerly permanent ponds and springs seasonal, so these water sources gradually become unavailable during the dry seasons. Women’s local knowledge can provide the most updated information about water sources and better inform the decision-makers about where water projects should be built and where they need to be maintained and repaired. Asaba also confirms that WUCs with a higher number of women members are more active, and they record higher functionality of water facilities and better access to water in these communities [14].

Social enterprises and non-governmental organizations also can help develop women’s capacity to access information, knowledge, and skills to maintain water facilities. Women are often hesitant to speak up because of illiteracy, lack of skill at repairing infrastructure, and low self-confidence. The organizations can develop training programs and teach women how to replace pipes, how to prevent and control water pollutants, how to troubleshoot water pumps, etc. As women are the main water fetchers and managers, a training program can help them be less dependent on men for repairs and operations. With these interventions, they can have a relatively more stable water situation for irrigation and domestic use. The problems caused by free riders can be addressed by empowering women to take more responsibility and corresponding credits for maintaining water facilities. This can help to solve the free rider problem by assigning the duty of maintaining water facilities to people who have a strong motivation to do it. Women will not suffer so much from the wasted time and energy of going to the malfunctioning water facilities if they check on the spot regularly and repair the facilities immediately. 

Governmental (Macro) Level

Besides building more boreholes and shallow wells to extract underground water, the government can diversify the water supply and water facilities in order to provide more stable water access. For example, the government can invest in rainwater harvesting systems that help households store more rainwater in June through November to relieve the predicted water shortage in December through May [2]. 

In addition, the government can also invest in climate-resilient infrastructure to replace the aging infrastructure, as well as attract private investment and create standards for such projects. Climate-resilient infrastructure is “planned, designed, built, and operated in a way that anticipates, prepares for, and adapts to changing climate conditions” [15]. The goal of the climate-resilient infrastructure is to take climate-generated risks into account and minimize the predicted negative impacts of climate change on water supply at larger scales. For example, potential problems include the salinization of water supplies, increased risks of rivers overflowing, and a decline in the efficacy of flood defenses [15]. Improving infrastructure and management can help prevent these climate change-induced problems, reduce the cost of rebuilding and repairing infrastructure, prolong infrastructure life, increase the overall safety and efficacy of water systems, and save lives and property.  


In conclusion, addressing the intricate interplay between climate change, water insecurity, and gender inequality is imperative for building a sustainable and equitable future. By recognizing the unique vulnerabilities and capabilities of women in marginalized rural communities, we can implement inclusive programs and policies that ensure access to stable water, solve the free-rider problem, empower women as change agents, and mitigate the adverse effects of climate change. Only through collaborative efforts that embrace gender equality and inclusion, we can forge a path toward a world where water and the future are accessible for all.  


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[11] Hussain, W. (2018, February 26). The common good. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  

[12] Etongo, D., Fagan, G., Kabonesa, C., & Asaba B., R. (2018). Community-managed water supply systems in rural Uganda: The role of participation and capacity development. Water, MDPI, 10(9), 1–18. 

[13] The Investopedia Team. (2023, June 1). Free rider problem: Explanation, causes, and solutions. Investopedia.  

[14] Asaba, R. B. (2015). Gender and representation in local water governance in rural Uganda. International Journal of Agricultural Resources, Governance and Ecology, 11(3/4), 247–261.  

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Jul 13, 2023