Championing access to safe water
In western Nepal, through her participation in a UNICEF-supported water, sanitation and hygiene improvement project, a young girl finds confidence in helping to transform attitudes and practices in her community
Kapilvastu, Nepal: “It was a chance to help improve the lives of people in my community in a big way …. I didn’t think twice about accepting.”
That had been Bindu Tharu’s immediate reaction upon learning of her nomination to become a member of the Water and Sanitation Users’ Committee or WSUC in her home village of Bhaluhi in Shivaraj Municipality in Kapilvastu District in western Nepal. Bindu, a 23-year-old student of computer science, had received the call some time in August 2021, informing her of her selection.
“I said yes, of course,” she adds.
The formation of the committee was among various interventions that were being rolled out as part of efforts to improve the water, sanitation and hygiene or WASH conditions in Bhaluhi, undertaken by the Shivaraj Municipality in coordination with UNICEF and partner organization COSDER, Gorkha. This 'water-safe' community project – supported by UNICEF's partnership with the Government of Finland – focused on improving and expanding the existing water supply for the 125 households in the village, as well as ensuring better sanitation and solid waste management facilities.
Bindu says that availability and access to safe water has always been a challenge in her community as far back as she can remember – a question of poor infrastructure, certainly, but also a lack of awareness. “Many people didn’t use to boil or filter water before drinking, for example,” she explains.
“A lot of us, especially children, fell sick frequently, but we didn’t link this directly to the quality of the water we were consuming.”
Those links became clear when Bindu took part in training sessions organized by the chair and deputy chair of the WSUC to cascade to committee members what they had learned about water safety and water quality testing during a district-level training held with UNICEF and COSDER support. Such trainings, aimed at strengthening the capacity of the WSUC to operate and maintain the water supply and sanitation system are key to the programme’s bid for sustainability.
Indeed, not only did Bindu gain a great deal of knowledge about the different parameters involved in checking water quality as per the national standards, and about how this impacts public health, she also learned to conduct the water quality tests herself using an ENPHO kit. Bindu additionally became an active participant of the project’s other initiatives, which included construction and renovation of pipelines to bring water to every home, testing and treatment of water, improvement of the drainage and waste-management system, renovation of hand-pump platforms to avoid stagnant water puddles, as well as campaigns to raise awareness among community members about water quality testing and purification, handwashing and sanitation.
Over the months, Bindu says she’s witnessed some clear changes in her village. Not only is work currently underway to connect each home in Bhaluhi to a tap for easier access to water, but people are already a lot more cautious about the quality of water they are drinking, as well as about handwashing and other practices. This has stemmed in part, according to Bindu, to the weekly interactions that the WSUC has been holding in the community, to discuss and answer questions about sanitation and hygiene, and ways to improve conditions further.
And this change in the community has also extended to people’s attitudes towards her – a young woman involved in what has otherwise long been a male-dominated sector. Bindu remembers how neighbors and even some family members had dismissed her decision to join the WSUC, telling her it wasn’t “suitable work” for her.
“But now, the same people ask me to come over and test their water,” Bindu says with a laugh.
Thanks to the active efforts of Bindu and other locals like her, Bhaluhi is well on its way to joining a growing number of communities across the country that have been officially declared water-safe. The concept of water-safe communities is an initiative that UNICEF, in partnership with the Finnish Government, has been supporting the Government of Nepal to pilot across the country in response to the increasing concerns over water quality. The first such declaration was done in 2019.