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Gender and Water Security in Burkina Faso: Lessons for adaptation

This policy brief looks at water security risks in Burkina Faso through a gender lens, providing insights on how gendered norms and practices produce differentiated risks.
Woman washing a child in Burkina Faso


In many countries, traditional divisions of labour mean that women conduct the majority of unpaid work related to the collection, transport, and management of water supplies for drinking and other domestic uses.

Women’s work on water limits time for other activities, including paid work, education or leisure, which can impact the wellbeing of the entire household.

These gender and power relations result in differing water security for individuals, even when they live in the same household or community.

This brief explores gender-differentiated water security risks in Burkina Faso, with the aim of informing the development of adaptation strategies in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector.

This text is a summary of the case study. For much more information please download the full report on the right-hand column.

Key Findings

Residents of Burkina Faso’s Nouaho sub-basin are exposed to water-related hazards such as inadequate quantities of water, poor sanitation, and flooding, which are exacerbated by climate change.

  • Gender roles and cultural norms related to water, such as divisions of labour, affect entitlements to water availability, affordability, accessibility and quality, producing differentiated risks for residents.
  • Long-term adaptation to water security risks is constrained by gender discrimination, particularly related to participation in local decision-making.
  • Adaptation planning in the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) sector must go beyond technological solutions, and empower women and marginalized groups, in order to address water security risks that will be intensified by climate change.

Gendered risks linked to water scarcity and variability

Respondents reported several water-related hazards that are exacerbated by climate variability and change. They included:

  • Unsafe water and sanitation
  • Extreme events such as droughts and floods

This study’s findings illustrate how water-related gender relations affect water availability, accessibility, quality and affordability, producing differentiated risks for residents in the sub-basin.

Inadequate quantities of water for domestic use – such as drinking, cooking, hygiene, and cleaning – result in long wait times, reduced accessibility, and, in some cases, the use of dug wells as secondary sources. In the case of water collection for household use:

  • 92% of respondents said this work is principally done by adult women
  • 23% said this is done by girls under 15 years old (some respondents reported multiple people were responsible for this work).

These groups are thus most directly impacted by reduced water availability and associated accessibility challenges in the dry season.

Accessibility and availability of water for domestic use is intertwined with watering livestock, a responsibility that falls to both females and males.

In the survey:

  • 33% of respondents reported it was the responsibility of boys under 15 years old
  • 31% said it was adult women
  • 27% said it was adult men
  • 9% said it was girls under 15 years old.

Men and boys are thus also vulnerable to limited accessibility, but respondents reported that men have greater control over negotiations for access at water points.

86% of respondents use boreholes – considered an “improved” water source – for drinking and domestic uses year-round. However, 10% of respondents use an unprotected well for these uses; because cultural norms put women in domestic and cleaning roles, this increases their exposure to contaminated water.

The fees to water user associations are similar across the sub-basin, but affordability depends on negotiations within households. 59% of respondents viewed men as responsible for paying household costs, for a variety of reasons, including a religious obligation, social norms that view men as the head of household, or women’s lack of income. Women, meanwhile, are largely responsible for collecting water. These gendered responsibilities, however, are not universal.

Gender-differentiated capacities to adapt to water security risks

To deal with inadequate quantities of water, women use coping strategies such as getting up very early or building up water reserves within the household.

While respondents reported that women have limited control over household income, they also said women have the largest say in determining water uses within households. However, in focus groups, women reported conflicts or instances of domestic violence linked to intra-household water use.

Such coping strategies are short-term. Long-term adaptation to water security risks requires adaptive capacities, determined by factors such as the agency to decide changes, access to assets, flexibility, learning, and social capital.

In focus groups, women were perceived by both male and female participants as having a limited ability to communicate with decision-makers about these issues, and thus to take on the types of roles that offer greater opportunities to have a voice in decisions.

These differences in the agency men and women have in household and community decision-making and in control over assets can play an important role in making choices and investments for adapting to water security risks. Thus, adaptation planning requires explicit consideration of constraints facing certain groups.

In addition, a majority of male (75%) and female (73%) respondents indicated their household has no or limited influence in the decisions of local authorities to resolve water-related problems, indicating limited accountability and empowerment to voice concerns to service providers.

Key Policy Implications

  • Climate change will intensify gendered water security risk. It is crucial that WASH interventions address water-related gender norms that reinforce inequalities.
  • What’s measured matters. Indicators that capture disparities between different groups are necessary in order to track progress towards SDG targets for “universal” water access, and towards Burkina Faso’s national plan for drinking water (Programme National d’Approvisionnement en Eau Potable) that is centred on the human rights lens.
  • Adaptation strategies related to climate change should address gender disempowerment, as this discrimination determines who has a greater voice in household and community decision-making.
  • Informal learning, such as peer-to-peer networks, offers opportunities to strengthen adaptive capacity and empower women, and could be tested in scaling-up interventions implemented by WaterAid in Burkina Faso, and in other contexts.

Suggested Citation

Dickin, S. (2018). Gender and water security in Burkina Faso: lessons for adaptation. SEI policy brief. Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm.

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