The SUSWA Project Support Unit consists of specialists as well as WASH Advisors stationed in the municipalities SUSWA works in and with. You can find some of the specialists’ introductions here (TECH, GOV, COORD, CAFO, CTA, FS).
At the end of the first year of implementation, two of our tough Advisors have agreed to share their experiences from starting the pioneering work of SUSWA, reflecting on the challenges they faced being the first ones to head out to the field to reconnaissance the project area, evaluate the current situation, and connect with the local duty bearers and right holders that form the SUSWA direct stakeholders. This story is the second of the two.
Over the course of the project, the WASH Advisors stay in the municipalities and support the start-up of the project work before moving to the next municipality. We applaud our courageous WASH Advisor nomads and recommend this reading only to those not faint of heart as starting up the project in remote upper Karnali comes with challenges.
The Advisors’ work would not be possible, however, without the support and commitment of the municipalities and communities they work in and with, and who know how to navigate the challenging environment they live and work in. We hope these stories therefore give you an appreciation both of the challenges faced by SUSWA WASH Advisors in the first year of project implementation, as well as of the people and elected leaders of Upper Karnali who work for sustainable WASH services for their communities with the support of the SUSWA project.
I am Raj DC and this is my story looking back on when I first joined SUSWA a year ago.
In May 2022 I started working in the SUSWA project as a WASH advisor. I had previously worked in other WASH projects, e.g., the Nepal-Finland RVWRMP project in neighbouring Sudurpaschim. After a short round of onboarding with the Project Support Unit and Specialist team, I rushed to join my assigned duty station Mudkechula Rural Municipality (RM) in Dolpa, which is considered one of the most remote Rural municipalities, nestled in the lap of the Himalayan range.
Map showing in orange SUSWA main office in Surkhet and Raj’s first year duty station Mudkechula in Dolpa. See SUSWA maps here.
I was quite excited and a bit nervous as it was my first time in Upper Karnali’s mountainous region. I took a new route from Jumla to Dolpa to join my duty station, as I had to try to discover a new route for the anticipated high-level visit from the Embassy of Finland. It took me one day by car to reach Jumla from Surkhet, then seven hours by a hired public car on a hardly used rough off-road path from Jumla to Chhasu-Jagadulla RM, and finally a 3-hour, mostly uphill, walk to reach my duty station, Narku village, the headquarter of Mudkechula.
The journey from Jumla to Mudkechula was a completely new experience for me in terms of the different geography, the high altitude mountain range, the rough off-road where hardly any vehicles were seen, no people, no market on the way in most of the long segment of the road and I was quite afraid when I noticed there was no network in my cell and I was completely unfamiliar with this route and the destination that I was rushing to. Based on this learning, the project had to improve its staff’s security plan which was done immediately. Being guided by the few people on the way and feeling quite impressed by the people who live in this remote place, I somehow managed my journey to the destination – Mudkechula Rural Municipality.
First meeting with the local government
I arrived in Mudkechula at the end of the current fiscal year and there was a crowd in the municipality as all the people’s representatives were there for the municipality assembly meeting to prepare next year’s program and budget. I introduced myself to the municipality chair and asked for his time for a short meeting. He seemed quite busy, and engaged with other municipality meetings, however, upon hearing the project name, SUSWA, he seemed excited and welcoming to me, and helped me to sort my accommodation as well.
The following day, I met with the Chair, Vice-chair and the Chief Administration Officer, CAO. After the short round of introductions, I shared about the SUSWA project and SUSWA working modalities. SUSWA works as technical support to the municipalities who must take ownership of implementing the project. As I have worked in a previous Finnish project, RVWRMP, I could also share about the past Finnish-funded bilateral projects RWSSP and RVWRMP and their recognition in municipalities in the sector of WASH, especially in terms of quality assurance, community participation, transparency, inclusion and the activity level monitoring and ownership of the Project by the local government. I also said that a Finnish Project is being implemented for the first time in Karnali Province and we don’t have a clear idea of how it works, especially in upper Karnali, because of its geographical remoteness and how local governments will cooperate and take ownership of the project to make it successful. Before I had time to complete my sentence, the municipality chair said:
“I want to make this project a success at any cost, no matter what efforts our municipality has to apply, I myself will visit, together with the SUSWA team, in the communities to ensure peoples’ participation in the project activities in terms of cash and kind contribution from them. I am happy to allocate a sufficient budget from the municipality as a matching fund if needed.”
The Chairperson further highlighted that the community participation trend in the municipality is not good and he wants to strengthen that as well. The short introductory meeting ended on a very positive note, as the municipality people showed great commitment to the success of the project.
The first high-level visit to SUSWA working area & the importance of SUSWA work on strengthening governance
I immediately had another important priority upon my arrival to Dolpa, which was to facilitate and accompany a high-level visit from the Embassy of Finland (EOF) in Nepal, with Development Counselor Jari Laukka and Special Advisor Dr. Chudamani Joshi about to pay their first visit to this new project area.
The visit was intended to have interaction and meetings with municipality teams and communities to understand the current status and WASH governance in SUSWA working areas. For this, a visit was scheduled in both ThuliBheri municipality and Mudkechula rural municipality of Dolpa, as well as Hima and Kanakasundari rural municipality of Jumla district.
Therefore, I left Mudkechula in order to meet the visitors in Dolpa. I started my journey walking from Narku Mudkechula towards Thulibheri, with the plan to visit some of the scheme areas on the way to the villages of Ila and Baigaun aula, in order to measure the water source with the support of community members. When I visited the scheme areas and sources, I found unmanaged pipelines lying around as well as damaged structures such as intake and reservoir tanks. This proved that schemes had been implemented in the past but with no proper technical guidance, lack of monitoring, poor ownership, and no plan or strategy for the sustainable functionality of the schemes, which resulted in the schemes being poorly managed, unsafe, and only partially functional.
It was continuously drizzling when I was walking from Narku to Triveni, which was supposed to take 5 hours walking, but took me 7 hours along the muddy path. While walking on the muddy path in the rain, following the long path up and down, for a moment I lost my confidence in whether I can continue working for SUSWA or not. At the same time, I was proud to be a part of SUSWA as it has given high priority to such remote beautiful areas where very few organizations dare to work. Luckily, as soon as I reached Jufal Thulibheri by traveling 4 hours in a public car from Triveni, I forgot all the struggles I faced on the way. I did all the necessary coordination with the Municipality and community for the EOF visit.
With the arrival of the EOF team, including our PSU specialists and CTA, we visited the Municipality office with the Mayor. After the welcome from the municipality and introductions, Special advisor Dr. Chudamani Joshi briefly talked about the SUSWA project and its working modality, and development counselor Jari Laukka shared about the long-term support in several development sectors that the government of Finland has committed to the development and prosperity of Nepal. The Mayor shows a strong commitment to the ownership and proper implementation of the SUSWA project as per the project guidelines. During the visit by EOF, we interacted with a few water users and user committees in Thulibheri and Mudkechula. Most of the users have the same story and they reported that the user committees did not maintain the schemes properly, there was no water flow in tap stands, and maintenance workers did not receive their full wages from the user committees. Only a few elite groups lead the process and scheme implementation with no public and social participation and auditing among all users.
After interaction with the communities, together with the LG the visiting team concluded that there was a big need for SUSWA to support the establishing and improvement of WASH governance in the municipality, as outlined in the SUSWA Project Document and Implementation Manual, for sustainable functionality of WASH services.
Forming of WUSCs & strengthening WASH structures and governance in practice
I visited the community areas for the schemes proposed to be supported by the SUSWA project in the first implementation year (2022-2023) to support the formation of Water Users and Sanitation Committees (WUSCs). For this purpose, I coordinated with the municipality and ward chair to call up mass meetings so everybody could participate in the formation process.
At the beginning of the meeting, everybody wanted to hold a position in the WUSC, they would even quarrel with each other, but when I just introduced SUSWA and shared information about its working approaches, transparency, people participation, procurement guidelines including all the step-by-step process, more than 60% of the people stepped back and only a few who could understand and follow the project guidelines stuck to their decision of holding a position in the WUSC.
This experience really showed me the existing perception in the communities. Joining the WUSC was seen as an opportunity to make money, to follow no proper mechanisms allowing for misuse of the budget, and to have the power to steer the project in any way they want.
Having a deep understanding of all these facts, I focused on the SUSWA project field guidelines in the mass meeting. I said they have to be strictly followed and explained that SUSWA will be completely different from the normal process, or lack thereof, that is being followed in the municipality currently.
The vigorous discussion and sharing about the SUSWA project in the mass meetings, led to the successful formation of gender-balanced WUSCs with proportional ethnic/caste group representation in each of the scheme areas.
Apart from this, while working with local governments in Dolpa, it was really challenging to meet municipal authorities and officials on a regular basis, partly due to their busy schedule and sometimes conflicting interests, but particularly due to key persons not staying for long periods in the rural municipality, but traveling and staying in Nepalgunj, Kathmandu and elsewhere. This made it hard to conduct WASH MC meetings, despite those meetings being crucial for moving forward with the project.
The Project implementation began formally after the endorsement of the Annual Work Plan by the municipality council and started at the beginning of the new fiscal year from mid-July 2022. The first major task was the formation and recruitment of WASH unit staff. Despite heavy external political pressure and influence, we succeeded in completing the full recruitment process following the WASH unit staff’s selection and mobilization procedure.
After the fulfillment of the WASH unit positions, a five-day WASH unit training was conducted to strengthen their capacity so that they could be best mobilized in the field to achieve project results. WASH unit staff began to mobilize and perform tasks in their respective assigned working areas and project activities being conducted following the project’s field implementation guidelines including step-by-step guidelines. The procurement process of non-local materials is one of the important activities under the SUSWA project to ensure transparency and to maintain high-quality materials used for construction.
DWSSM visit & recognition of the successful approach to support governance
After nearly one full year in Dolpa, the Deputy director general of the Department of Water Supply and Sewerage Management (DWSSM), Madhab Adhikari visited Dolpa.
Mr. Adhikari put his queries to the municipality team to learn about SUSWA progress and working modality in the municipality. In response, Druba Bikram Shahi, the chair-person of ward no-7, Thulibheri Municipality said “ We are very much hopeful with the SUSWA project though the schemes are still under construction, the process and approaches that the SUSWA has followed in the municipality is completely new for the municipality and is helpful to maintain transparency and quality of the works. An example is the community procurement process for purchasing non-local materials, the quality check of non-local materials by technical staff, before receiving the material in the presence of users and suppliers, on-site technical support and monitoring by technical staff from the WASH Unit, etc. ”.
In the same meeting, Dil Kumar Rokaya, WUSC chairperson of one of the ongoing schemes, Durgain, also highlighted the SUSWA working approaches, such as close coordination with the community through the series of training to capacitate users and WUSC, UC management, and procurement training to all WUSC members was supportive and helpful to ensure transparency and quality control as well.
The DWSSM team also visited the Dunai drinking water scheme, which covers more than 400 households and is proposed for SUSWA support for reconstruction. After having a meeting with the Ward chair and UC members of Dunai schemes, the deputy director general suggested UC members regulate the water tariff, by establishing water meters in each household for equitable distribution of water and for functionality of the scheme. He also stressed that until and unless the UC governance system is not fully applied, schemes will not be functional, this is what SUSWA should focus on.
One year of progress
At the end of DWSSM visit in May 2023, my time in Dolpa also came to an end. I was leaving Dolpa with lots of memories as I was already assigned new municipalities in Salyan for repeating the process of forming WUSCs and getting the municipalities ready for implementation in the next fiscal year (2023-2024).
When I left Dolpa, the construction work was at a peak at the community level. Together we had established structures on LGs and Community level so they could oversee the construction and functionality of the Water schemes and WASH plans. It made me excited that soon all these schemes will be delivering water to the communities – and I was there and part of it from the very start.