A young Indian woman, heavy with child, carries a bright yellow plastic urn to the village well. Eight times a day, she hauls water from the well and carries it home to prepare food; wash children, floors, and pots; and tend to crops. She visits an obstetrician, who tells her she must not lift heavy things. The woman nods, expressionless.
There are few words in the film Women and Water; only occasional quiet narration from its subjects and the ambient sounds of their work punctuate the often stunning visuals. But Spanish filmmaker Nocem Collado still tells a powerful story of modern India’s water woes: rivers choked with trash, sewage, and chemical waste; mosquito-borne diseases; and women traveling long distances to fetch water.
Four “stories,” each loosely centered on a different woman, anchor the film: the expectant mother; a village woman who travels 5 hours a day to fetch water from a distant well; a rubbish collector in the slums of Mumbai; and a member of the “untouchable” caste. The film watches them unflinchingly as they go about their often-grueling daily chores and worry about their children’s health and futures. It makes a strong case that the country’s water-related hardships disproportionately affect women, who must find ways to channel the water to their families.
The film ends quietly; it offers no suggestions for management, little sense of the historical context in which these problems arose, and, consequently, little hope for the future. One expert interviewed in the film cites Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quote, “Sanitation is more important than political independence,” made nearly a century ago. In recent decades, the country has launched several campaigns—the latest in 2014—to bring clean toilets to every one of its people and end open defecation. Sanitation is only one of the many environmental challenges India faces. It will be, to say the least, an uphill climb.