Paradise is at the foot of our mothers. Above us – only sky. Every day, young girls and women spend 200 million hours fetching water. That is 8.3 million days. This exceeds 22,800 years.

Globally, girls are twice as likely as boys to take charge of fetching water, according to the 2023 WASH report entitled “Progress on Household Drinking Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (2000- 2022)” published by the WHO and the United Nations Children’s Fund (WHO/UNICEF) Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP).

Cecilia Sharp, who is the UNICEF Director of WASH and CEED (Climate, Environment, Energy, and Disaster Risk Reduction) said, “Every step a girl takes to collect water is a step away from learning…and safety”.

In 2008, Professor Claudia Goldin published “The Race Between Education and Technology” with Lawrence Katz. Together, they established a connection between the “American Century” and the “Human Capital Century”. The work highlights the role of education in economic growth and individual productivity.

Goldin and Katz show that in the first half of the century, education leapfrogged technology, but later in the century, technology raced ahead of educational gains. They argue that the educational slowdown was due to a sharp rise in economic inequality.

Professor Goldin, Nobel Laureate of Economic Sciences in 2023, rummaged through 200 years of economic history in the United States to show how and why gender differences in earnings, and employment rates have shifted over the decades. She discovered that female participation in the labour market did not show an upward trend over the entire period, but rather a U-shaped curve.

This means that economic growth across different eras did not affect gender differences in the labour market. She argues that the supply and demand for female labour was influenced by opportunities for combining paid work and having a family, expectations related to pursuing education and raising children, technical advancements, legislation and norms, and the structural transformation of an economy.

She labels this as an unequal paradigm. She argues that men have a family and “step up” in their careers because women “step back”. She claims that men sacrifice time with their family, while women forgo professional advancement.

Today, the climate crisis has made it worse for many girls and women. Many girls now walk along dry river beds barefooted to dig for water twice each day. Women use water to bathe their children, sanitize the home, cook food, laundry the clothes of the whole family, and clean the dishes after every meal. Women are in water.

The connection between water and women is clearly delineated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It calls for ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all under SDG6.

It also creates ambitious indicators for WASH services under targets 6.1 and 6.2. The SDG global target for sanitation and hygiene (6.2) is explicit on the needs of women and girls.

Using AI to address deficiencies across water systems, which currently struggle to provide about 25% of the global population with clean water, about 50% without sanitation services and nearly 30% without hygiene facilities, is a fresh frontier.

AI can enhance supply insights, catchment management and emergency response, improve treatment plant and distribution network design, operation and maintenance, and demand management and water justice.

But this approach is not without intrinsic risks. The proliferation of AI could trigger unforeseen events. Design errors can result in critical infrastructure failures, openness to cyberattacks as well as exposures to problems nested inside the water–energy–food nexus.

The safe and judicious deployment of AI across potable water supply and sewage disposal systems will require bureaucrats to: (1) address gaps in foundational infrastructure and digital literacy; (2) establish official software and hardware mechanisms for trustworthy AI; (3) prioritize deployments using a systematic benefit and risk assessment framework.

The changes that accompanied the Industrial Capitalism of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which were fuelled by the Triangular Trade, is far from the present AI shift that is welling from the confluence of many disruptive borderless forces. It is a shift that stems from a new dynamic phase of globalization that is fuelled by robust flows of people, capital and information.

According to Dobbs, Manyika and Woetzel in “No Ordinary Disruption”, (2016) we are in the midst of a deep disruption. Unlike the technological shifts that occurred at the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris. This is a collision of connectivity, urbanization, a digital belt and road, unmatched opportunities, and unexpected volatilities.

AI is transforming society 10 times quicker, and at 300 times the scale, or roughly 3,000 times the effect of the Industrial Revolution. AI does not pray. It cannot hope or feel. Nor does it have awareness or imaginative capabilities.

The proliferation of smartphones in developing economies could also enable mass communication of drinking water contamination or educational hygiene practices similar to those during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Portable AI systems can also be trained to evaluate drinking water quality, to prevent outbreaks of waterborne diseases.

Smart water technologies, including off-grid services, such as solar-powered “water ATMs”, could be scattered and monitored remotely to improve safe water for women and girls in particular.