Water Wives: Men in India Marry Extra Women to Fetch Them Water

Parched regions of India depend on women who take on the time-consuming, inconvenient task of obtaining and carrying water

Women Carrying Water
Dinodia Photo/Corbis

In India, monsoons aren’t just a weather system — they’re a lifeline, especially in areas without access to water. As drought threatens the country again this year, Reuters’ Danish Siddiqui looks at how water shortages affect villagers in one parched area of the country: an area in which safe drinking water is so scarce that men take on additional “water wives” to fetch it.

The practice is common in villages like Denganmal, in western India, reports Siddiqui, which is located in an area with at least 19,000 villages that lack access to water. It’s so time-consuming and inconvenient to get water in places like Denganmai that men have taken to marrying two to three additional women just to make the trek to and from wells.

These “water wives” are often widows or single mothers wishing to “regain respect” in their communities, writes Siddiqui. He notes that they usually do not share the marital bed and often live in separate apartments. But even though many are wives in name only, their labor is essential to their husbands: they must walk through hot temperatures and sticky humidity to communal wells, where they then wait hours for their turn before loading up metal containers and makeshift pitchers with water and lugging them back.

Though polygamy is illegal for non-Muslims in India, two percent of married Indian women reported that they were not their husband’s only wife in a 2006 survey. Despite anti-polygamy laws, necessity is the mother of invention in places like Denganmal, which Siddiqui writes has been particularly hard-hit by drought conditions.

2015 has already been a year of extreme heat in India, and this year’s monsoon is predicted to be below normal. That’s a problem for a country that calls the seasonal rain, rain that provide as much as 80 percent of the country’s annual rainfall, its “real finance minister.”

Monsoon or no, the water situation in India has long been a concern: the World Resources Institute writes that 54 percent of India uses more than 40 percent of its annually-available surface water every year. Now, weather agencies are quibbling about this year’s forecast as commentators debate how to “drought-proof” India’s economy. In fact, only one thing seems certain about the future of India’s water: at least some of it will be carried by women who have married specifically to fetch it over and over again.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.