Water, Women, and the Economy

Portrait of Pinar Keskin

Photo by Richard Howard

Pinar Keskin, assistant professor of economics, started thinking about water while she was in India.

As a Ph.D. student at Yale, she was studying gender dynamics in households. What really caught her attention were the hours upon hours rural women spent collecting water.

“These women were spending such a significant amount of their day trying to access this key resource,” she says. Since then, Keskin has dedicated her career to studying water access, quality, and scarcity in developing countries, and the economic and health issues surrounding all three.

“Almost half of the world’s population has issues with water,” Keskin says. She’s fascinated with the role socioeconomic status and ethnic identity play in access to water, and examines whether well-designed policy interventions can help. In many cases, the answer is yes.

This spring, in addition to classes on microeconomics, probability and statistics, and environmental and resources economics, Keskin will be teaching a new course on the environment and developing countries.

“Water scarcity will be more and more serious as time passes,” she says. “People treat water as a renewable resource, but that’s not true. It’s renewable only if we know how to manage it.” We also need to worry about the quality of water, she says, with more than 3.4 million people globally dying every year from water-related disease, according to the World Health Organization.

Most recently, Keskin has been working on a study, in conjunction with researchers at the University of Virginia, looking at how sky-high levels of fluoride in India’s water supply might be affecting children’s cognitive development. High fluoride levels also put millions of Indians at high risk of developing fluorosis, a crippling bone disease. Keskin and her team will distribute fluoride filters to households. “We want to see what effects fluoride may have had that are reversible,” she says.

Keskin came to Wellesley from Wesleyan in 2011. She did a postdoc at Harvard University, and has been a visiting scholar at the Toulouse School of Economics in France and a visiting researcher at Boston University.

Growing up in Ankara, Turkey, in the 1980s, she has memories of her mother waiting for water at a communal tap. The government periodically cut access to water in homes as a way to manage a scarce supply due to migration, drought, and poor infrastructure.

“It’s women who are typically affected by water issues, or children,” Keskin says. “In Africa, many kids tend not to go to school so they can fetch water. This ultimately has huge economic implications.”

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