This story appears in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
From India to Bolivia, it was always the women who knew exactly how much water their family needed.
When photographer Ashley Gilbertson sat down in households across six countries to document water access for UNICEF, he’d ask them to tally their daily usage. Then he’d display the total amount used in plastic containers filled from the local source.
Although it was wives and daughters who gathered, purified, cooked, and cleaned with the water, their husbands or fathers answered first. “The men would often have no idea how difficult it was to get the water or how much water was being used,” he recalls. “I’d say, ‘I think we should talk to your wife,’ and she’d start laughing.”
The inequality of the chore shocked Gilbertson. Some women he met walked for miles to reach the nearest source. Every day, women and children around the world spend a collective 125 million hours gathering water, according to Water.org.
“Water is a very gendered subject,” says Lesley Pories, the institutional partnerships manager at Water.org. “In a society where water comes only at certain times of a day, one’s whole day is likely to revolve around water collection.” The task, she adds, becomes “an obstacle to paid work or education.”
Gilbertson also wanted to photograph water usage in the developed world. When he came home to New York City, he decided it was only fair to use himself as the subject. He and his wife tracked their water usage—the 1,000 daily liters “astonished” them—and posed with the bottles.
“I turn on the tap; water comes out,” Gilbertson says. “When you work with people who have to collect that water, you really feel the value of that resource. You actually feel it: It’s really heavy to carry.”