Dr. Kathleen O’Reilly is a feminist geographer with extensive Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) experience in urban and rural India. She studies drinking water supply systems’ management and the impacts of sanitation interventions for marginal groups, particularly women and lowest castes. Her career spans over 20 years of data collection in India, research findings, dissemination, and teaching. As a Professor of Texas A&M University’s College of Geosciences, she was named a Presidential Impact Fellow in October 2018, which is among the most prestigious recognitions for scholarly impact presented to Texas A&M faculty.
Kathleen has received research grants from the National Science Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (UNOPS), and others to fund her work. When not writing grants, Kathleen is writing up her research results for publication in scholarly journals. Meanwhile, she does accept every invitation to speak at national and international venues to policymakers, donors, activists, consulting groups, and government officials about sustainable development, gender issues, and the significance of geography for WASH interventions.
Kathleen has a love of travel, a dedication to teaching and an aspiration to extend the reach of her accumulated knowledge to both academic and non-academic organizations that seek to improve water supply and sanitation access—both in India, but also in other places in the developing world.
“Why I Am Passionate About My Work”
An estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide lack access to adequate sanitation. Instead, they defecate in the open or use latrines that don’t protect their health. 647 million of these people live in India. India has spent decades trying to end open defecation; it has not yet succeeded.
I have dedicated my career to trying to learn why water and sanitation projects fail, and why they succeed. The reasons are very complicated, but in brief, water supply sustainability and latrine usage depends on social, political, environmental and economic factors. For example, in three Indian villages, seven separate latrine-building interventions failed because: 1) lower caste groups refused to clean the latrines of higher caste groups, so higher caste groups did not use their latrines because they would not clean them themselves; 2) public toilets were built, but the village leader kept them locked; 3) an aid agency built composting toilets, but no one wanted to use toilets that did not need water; 4) finally, farmers began selling their fields for housing developments when land prices rose. It was at this time that villagers began to talk about building and using latrines, because open defecation grounds would soon be closed.
Most of my research time is spent talking with Indian women in their own language (Hindi) about how latrine-building interventions and drinking water supply projects impact their lives. We also talk about their experiences when they don’t have access to safe spaces for defecation and managing their periods, or when they cannot access the amounts of water they need to feel clean and comfortable. One key finding from a recent study in urban slums was that newly-built, inadequate sanitation infrastructure (e.g., no lights, no locks, no water) forced women and girls to resume open defecation, even though they were afraid of being attacked by men or animals. The public latrines were built for them, but women did not use them—they felt safer going in the open, despite the risks of sexual violence.
Billions of dollars are spent in search of solutions to the WASH crisis. Thousands of scholars, aid organizations, private foundations, and government departments are engaged in this international effort. I remain optimistic that applied research and global information sharing will bring us closer to improving public health, especially that of women and girls.