In Nepal, 'Good Water Changes Everything'

Feature | 22 March 2010

A small town water supply and sanitation sector project in Nepal is empowering the Tharu minority and keeps students in school.

Parsa, Nepal - A gleaming white tower looms behind Parsa Bazaar, easily visible over the sprawl of shops, restaurants, honking buses, and homes along Nepal's main East-West Highway. It is an overhead tank, 20 meters high, and it helps provide nearly 2,000 households in the town with something not available in Kathmandu - a clean, 24-hour supply of drinking water.

"Thirty years ago, there wasn't even a town here," says Sher Man Tamang, a 62-year-old shop owner and head of the local Water Users and Sanitation Committee (WUSC). "Things really changed in the 1990s, and now we're almost a small city."

Unregulated urban areas continue to grow along newly built highways in Nepal, as people leave marginal farms in rugged hill country to search for work in the fertile plains along the Indian border.

With new opportunities come new problems though, and none more acute than water and sanitation. Sher Man Tamang remembers how waterborne diseases were endemic in Parsa as recently as 5 years ago.

"With all the new settlement, there was so much pollution of streams and water," he says. "It was getting serious and something had to change."

Something did. The Government of Nepal decided in the late 1990s to address Parsa's need for clean water and sought help from the ADB and others. The new water tower and twin deep wells resulted. Today, dozens of similar projects are connecting taps and toilets in communities throughout Nepal.

Clean water is something the town's residents are hugely proud of. "We drink straight from the tap, and no one gets sick," says housewife Shanta Chaudhary. She demonstrates by turning on a faucet and cupping her hand underneath the flow.

But it is not just the steady supply and purity of the water that makes the Parsa project special.

Though its recent growth comes from migration, Parsa district has long been dominated by Nepal's indigenous Tharu people. Before settlers felled the teak forests of the Nepali plains for farming half a century ago, the Tharu were hunters and gatherers.

This project has included the Tharu people in the planning and implementation, an effort to raise them out of systemic poverty caused by their loss of access to the natural resources that sustained them historically.

Water is leading the way, says Lal Mani Chaudhary - a common last name among Tharu people. Lal Mani is an activist and local member of the country's Constituent Assembly.

"When I was a child, no Tharu family had a toilet or a water tap. All of us were poor, but we're changing all that, not just here but across Nepal," Lal Mani says.

He explains how the WUSC helps Tharu people take part in making decisions that affect them.

"It starts here, it carries on in Kathmandu," he says, "where people like me are helping write the constitution for this whole country."

Lal Mani is one of 601 members of the Constituent Assembly that was elected last year, ending more than 10 years of civil war.

None of this has come cheaply, but in a unique twist for Nepal, local people helped pay for the project's construction and give a monthly stipend for the water they use.

The water tower is still clearly visible from the hamlet of Baireni, about a 10-minute drive away. WUSC chair Sher Man Tamang is proud that almost every villager here has agreed to pay for water - something unheard of a generation ago.

Next to the old surface water pump, still in use for washing clothes and irrigating gardens, six taps jut from the ground, each attached to a water meter. Sher Man Tamang turns a faucet and point to the slowly ticking numbers on the face of the meter.

"People pay a small amount for 10,000 liters a month," he says, "and they can afford it. What's the price of good health? We tell them it's worth everything."

Not that it was easy to convince consumers to pay for something that had always been free.

"We took around two empty mineral water bottles and got people to watch as we filled them: one from the traditional surface supply and another from our taps," says the government's district health officer B.R. Duwadi. "Then we'd ask them to wait half an hour. They'd see that our tap produced consistently clear water while their own source was murky, even after letting it sit and settle."

Paying for water compels people to conserve it and changes habits that cause pollution, says Tiresh Khatri, with the government's Department of Water Supply and Sewerage.

"It's a balance between charging too much and charging too little," Khatri says, "but this project has it right. We've identified 265 communities where we can do this, and we've already started in 29 of them."

At a local primary school, headmaster Narayan Shrestha teaches a regular Friday class on water and sanitation. Toilet blocks and water taps built by the WUSC sit in the schoolyard, next to a hand-washing station festooned with messages about preventing pollution and disease.

"These facilities have changed everything," Shrestha says. "Hardly any students fall ill and miss school now."

As he scrubs his hands at a tap, 10-year-old Sandeep Chaudhary says he takes the message back home and spreads the word with his family.

Explaining that, through the program, his family has a tap and a toilet, Sandeep adds, "Good water changes everything."