Blog post

The Water, Sanitation
& Hygiene Miracle in Nepal

Mr. Namaste Lal Shrestha from Western Nepal is often referred to as the “Mr. Toilet” of Nepal. He actually likes his title, because he’s been working as a WASH official with UNICEF for more than 26 years.

He takes us on a quick trip through the years when less than one per cent of the population had toilets at home, to the present where almost three quarters of the population does. He was also recently honoured by the government as the First National Sanitation Champion.

Kathmandu, Nepal 24 September 2014: “When I joined UNICEF in 1987 the major focus was on providing drinking water to all Nepalese. We had seven field offices and we worked the length and breadth of the country, from the hills and mountain districts to the flatlands in the Terai; we provided pipes and other water supply equipment and a little training to community members for maintenance.

Whenever people saw us, they assumed we were the “khane paani” people (the drinking water supply division of the government).

In the late 80’s, national sanitation coverage was so low (less than one per cent) that when we travelled to the field we had a saying in Nepali “Goo aayo, ta Gau aayo” which literally means “when there’s poo, there’s a village!”

I remember UNICEF drivers from Kathmandu were often reluctant to drive to the villages because locals defecated in the open and almost all roads were covered with poo, which would stick to the tyres and they had a horrible time cleaning afterwards!

Considering that the majority of my compatriots still work as agricultural or daily wage labourers, getting them to use their scarce resources to build a toilet was a monumental challenge.

UNICEF was very concerned about tackling the sanitation problem but most government officials didn’t want to talk about toilets then. They considered it a “dirty issue” and whenever I broached the subject of toilets at meetings they would get upset with me. Many times, they would avoid me or instruct their staff to say that they were out of the office if Namaste Lal from UNICEF called!

The social concept about defecation then was almost taboo for discussion. People considered it normal to defecate in the open.

UNICEF’s strategy to include Communities begins to bear fruit

UNICEF had devised a three pronged strategy to our programme: a) The formation of Users Committees; b) Women’s Participation in water and sanitation programmes; and c) Community Participation to ensure that there was ownership and responsibility by all involved.

I remember that women’s roles in community work was minimal. UNICEF also began advocating for women’s participation and employing more women and encouraged partners to do the same. The government officials saw what UNICEF was trying to do and appointed women workers in the water supply divisions in all 75 districts.

In 1990, the UN marked the end of a Decade of Water Supply and Nepal had done remarkably well. That same year, programming was enlarged so that all drinking water projects began to include sanitation too.

Our partnerships with individuals in the government was strengthened over the years, and our support and persistence finally paid off when the government in 1994 introduced a Sanitation Policy, which also spelled out women’s roles and embedded sanitation with all drinking water supply projects!

UNICEF saw that situation was changing and in 1998, UNICEF supported the Government of Nepal to organise the First National Sanitation Conference. The event was historic because it was the first time that chairpersons of all 75 District Development Committees (DDCs) participated, along with the Mayors of all 54 municipalities in the country. Suddenly sanitation was no longer a development issue, but a political one, since all DDC chiefs and mayors representing different political parties had pledged to work to improve sanitation.

Children as Agents of Change

In 2000 UNICEF also helped formulate another strategy: the School Sanitation and Hygiene Education initiative (SSHE) was launched in all schools in UNICEF supported districts. This was a watershed moment because it galvanised students and young people and helped fire their motivation.

UNICEF’s focus on “children as agents of change” meant that children began to lobby their schools to provide drinking water and toilet facilities. Soon children began to take sanitation and hygiene messages to their families too.

We began lobbying the government for other booster activities such as the National Sanitation Action Week, where children replicated this passion in their communities. Based on these achievements, in 2006 the WASH programme was expanded into the communities and school catchment areas through the School Led Total Sanitation (SLTS) movement. This was a game changer because everyone bought into it including children’s clubs and student groups, and Parent Teacher Associations began to initiate many novel techniques to urge people to build toilets.

Activities began with ‘naming and shaming’ households that didn’t have toilets to “naming and faming” households that did build. Students began to use the Triple T method. They convened mass meetings and asked everyone who owned a Television and a Telephone to raise their hands, and almost everyone did. Then they asked the same people if they also had Toilets at home – and many didn’t. The children then asked them how they could afford the first two “Ts” and not the third T.

This method was really effective and got people thinking and motivated many males to build and use toilets for their families. It made them feel like providers, and the idea of not defecating in the open became prestigious as was the idea of having their community declared an Open Defecation Free (ODF) one.

The SLTS programme truly took the ODF campaign home – it struck a chord with women. They realised that the WASH movement was about securing their dignity and ensuring their privacy, whereby they did not have to go into the woods or fields to defecate or urinate: they did not have to wake up in the wee hours of the morning, or wait till night fell to tend to nature’s call – and this was something they rejoiced in.

Women and mothers groups became natural leaders and they realised that they could get the support of most local government officials at the village level. Soon enough leaders of Village Development Committees (VDCs) began planning and taking steps to ensure that everyone in their VDC built and used a toilet, in order to claim the prestigious title of being declared an “ODF VDC”!

Now, if you’ve ever been lucky enough to attend a ceremony celebrating a VDC’s success – believe me it’s like being at a wedding. And speaking of weddings, I have been to a wedding in Chitwan district where the bride’s family gifted the groom’s family a toilet pan and other materials to build a toilet, because they didn’t have one!

In the Terai districts, women’s groups also began a campaign for new brides that literally translated into “No brides for households without toilets” and this spurred many prospective grooms to build toilets before the wedding day!

Tragedy and a Renewed Commitment forged on tackling the problem at the Source

However, amidst all this gradual progress there was a tragedy fomenting in the background that would shake the WASH campaign right to its foundation.

In 2008, UNICEF helped get all 601 newly elected Members of Parliament at one venue to pledge their commitment to national sanitation. The same year the UN also declared 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation worldwide, and the Global Handwashing Day was also initiated the same year. Spirits couldn’t have been higher.

However, the following year a vicious outbreak of diarrhea in some mid-western districts killed 371 and affected 70,000. This stunned health and WASH officials and the development community who all wanted to avert another epidemic.

We all knew that the culprit was contaminated water sources and we had to ensure that drinking water was not being polluted by open defecation. So water and sanitation had to go hand in hand.

Everybody put their heads together and examined earlier successes of school and community-led campaigns on sanitation and hygiene. UNICEF and partners worked with school children, women’s paralegal groups, teachers and local political leaders to hammer home the message that open defecation was killing their children.

Soon enough there was political will and commitment at the highest levels of government. This resulted in the Aligning for Action to Make Diarrhoea Epidemics History campaign that was supported by all. Whole districts began working on the Model District Sanitation Framework.

Meanwhile, UNICEF was also supporting the government to write a draft of the National Sanitation and Hygiene Master Plan. Across the nation, many districts and VDCs and municipalities had declared their will to stop open defecation in their communities. The first three districts to declare themselves ODF districts were Kaski, Chitwan and Tanahun.

In 2011 the President of Nepal Mr. Ram Baran Yadav officially launched the National Sanitation and Hygiene Master Plan which was endorsed by the cabinet. Seven government ministries and the National Planning Commission took ownership – and this policy was set into action.

To date 15 of Nepal’s 75 districts have been declared ODF and 15 more are in the process of doing the same by the end of this year. 18 municipalities have achieved the same feat as have 1680 VDCs across the country.

Now, the race to gain ODF status is open to all, and wherever I travel around the country I am informed that another VDC or district is working on a tight timeline to build toilets and declare their community as ODF.

The social momentum is unstoppable and I smile at the thought of how far we’ve come. From less than one per cent sanitation coverage 25 years ago to 76 per cent today. I’m so proud to be a part of this movement that sometimes my wife teases me and says she’s glad I met her first, otherwise I’d be married to a toilet!”

As told to Robin Giri

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