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Water scarcity and its impact on period poverty in Jamaica

Extended periods of water scarcity due to climate change worsen the effects of period poverty.

Climate change-related events such as droughts, which lead to water scarcity, pose a threat to the livelihood of people worldwide. Vulnerable groups like the elderly, Indigenous people, children, and people with diverse abilities are especially at risk, but one group that is almost always overlooked is menstruators.

Extended periods of water scarcity negatively impact females who experience a monthly period. They also exacerbate the effects of period poverty — the lack of access to menstrual hygiene products, education about menstruation, and adequate sanitation facilities. It is a widespread issue that affects women and girls who cannot afford necessary menstrual products such as sanitary pads, tampons, or menstrual cups.

Executive director of Jamaica’s HerFlow FoundationShelly-Ann Weeks, explained that period poverty “can also be extended to the facilities needed to manage your period”:

This would include clean running water, bathroom facilities, and hygiene areas. At the crux of it all, period poverty is about not being able to access or afford all that is required when you’re on your period.

Products used during menstruation. Photo by Candice Stewart, used with permission

The management of periods, known as menstrual hygiene management (MHM), is identified by the Joint Monitoring Program of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) as including a range of factors for consideration when managing menstruation. These include access to accurate information and education regarding monthly cycles and positive social norms around the topic of menstruation.

So, what role do climate change and water scarcity play? Evan Gates is a member of the Youth Advisory Board of PERIOD., an international period-positive organisation that — through advocacy, training, campaigning, and public engagement — helps youth, adults, organisations, and policymakers transform the way societies address periods.

Evan Gates, Youth Advisory Council member of PERIOD. Image courtesy of Evan Gates.

According to Gates, “A lot of the resources that people use to manage menstruation are water-based”:

[T]oilets, laundry, everything to do with waste management, everything to do with sanitation, even something as simple as washing your hands. That needs clean water and when you’re dealing with something that comes with a lot of blood, the need for clean water comes into play.

Based on the extent to which access to clean water impacts the management of periods, water scarcity then becomes an even more crucial issue.

A broader view, he says, is that worldwide, the absence of both clean water and water in general has been amplified by climate change:

[With droughts], the inability to get clean water is a major concern, and when you do have access to it, you’re pritoritising it for drinking purposes, for cooking, or for basic showering purposes instead of menstruation management.

Prioritisation is, therefore, placed on the other needs of water, according to which, thirst ranks much higher than period poverty. Weeks attests that people do not necessarily consider MHM as being important, even though “it has a direct impact on education, on culture, and on economic participation for 50 percent of the world at some point of their lives.”

Shelly-Ann Weeks, executive director of HerFlow Foundation. Image courtesy of Shelly-Ann Weeks.

While there are measures, such as the use of wet wipes, that can be taken to cope with menstruation in the absence of water, Weeks believes these only add to the problem, since being able to purchase wipes goes straight back to the matter of affordability:

If you’re already […] experiencing period poverty, you have no water, you have little to no money to buy water or readily access water, how will you be able to access wipes to use? People in this predicament may have a gallon of water and have to prioritise drinking water and using water to cook food. Their thought process is, ‘I can’t use this one gallon of water to properly wash myself and take care of my menstrual health hygiene. That can’t be the most important thing when I have two kids to feed.’

She stressed that many people fail to make the connection to period poverty:

A lack of empathy puts many in a position where they cannot even fathom [period poverty] because it’s not their reality.

With the advent of COVID-19 in 2020, the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) reported that, though the country’s poverty rate increased in 2021, it is projected to reduce. The prevalence of poverty in the country was estimated at 16.7 percent, a 5.7 percent increase when compared to 2019.

Water scarcity in Jamaica

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like Jamaica, which has an estimated population of 2.8 million, are often on the frontlines when it comes to experiencing the effects of climate change. The impact is even greater when economic and social factors are taken into consideration.

Despite the island being known as “the land of wood and water,” Jamaica regularly experiences water scarcity. Many households face water restrictions indefinitely, as dams and other water reserves often run considerably low. Earlier this year, the island’s National Water Commission (NWC) placed a prohibition order restricting water usage for communities in Kingston and St. Andrew because of drought. Despite attempts to obtain data from the NWC regarding water restrictions over the last five years, no information was provided.

In May 2023, the Minister without Portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, Senator Matthew Samuda, said in Parliament that the current dry period has been cumulatively drier than any other time in Jamaica’s recorded history. He noted that the eastern end of the island has been significantly impacted by the shift in rainfall patterns, and highlighted that the period of May to July was expected to see below-normal levels of rainfall.

In providing updates on the water levels of impacted water systems in the areas of Kingston and St. Andrew, the minister reported that the Hermitage System and the Mona Reservoir, were at 37 and 33 percent of their storage capacity, respectively, while the Seaview Water Treatment Plant, which is served by lines out of the neighbouring parish of St. Catherine, was at approximately 73 percent. Every part of the island felt, to varying degrees, the impact of the drought.

In the context of a 2013 study by the University of Hawaii, which predicted that Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, would reach climate departure in 2023, these events may be somewhat less surprising.

In August, Prime Minister Andrew Holness, while urging Jamaicans to observe the restrictions placed on the use of potable water, highlighted that drought conditions persist — and have a 40 percent chance of continuing until the end of the year, making it imperative for Jamaicans to be cautious and conserve water.

While droughts have contributed heavily to water scarcity, the fact remains that some rural communities have never had running water, whether the island was in a dry period or not. This suggests, therefore, that water scarcity in Jamaica transcends the challenges of climate change.

Senator Samuda has indicated that the government will continue to implement measures to respond to the current drought conditions, including the allocation of JMD 110 million (USD 711,920) to support farmers and JMD $130 million (USD 841,360) for the trucking of potable water; the purchase of tanks for households to facilitate water storage; the improvement of the water truck fleet; the enhancement of distribution; regulatory improvement; the reactivation of wells, and an increased allocation for trucking through municipal corporations.

Quite apart from climate change-related water scarcity being an injustice, period poverty also constitutes a public health crisis which, as of 2021, affects approximately 500 million menstruators worldwide. In Jamaica, easily accessible data about period poverty is difficult to source, but HerFlow Foundation conducted a study which revealed that a little over 40 percent of girls suffer from period poverty and have to go without sanitary supplies for months at a time.

This story was published by Our Today with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.


Picture of Candice Stewart

Candice Stewart

Candice is a storyteller who takes pleasure in extracting the lessons learned from difficult and pleasant experiences through insightful means. She holds an MA in Communications for Social and Behaviour Change from the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication (CARIMAC), writing human interest articles. Candice enjoys meaningful conversations and learning about people’s experiences. From there, she often shares the hilarious, gripping, and intricate details for audiences to consume.

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