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 first 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.
Pawan’s Story – First year of working as a SUSWA WASH Advisor in Mugu
I am a WASH Advisor in SUSWA. My name is Pawan Kumar Oli, and I am from Karnali, from Kumakh Rural Municipality 3 Salyan, where SUSWA is also working during the second year of implementation. During the first year of the SUSWA project implementation, I was the WASH Advisor for Mugum Karmarong Rural Municipality in the district of Mugu in the mountainous Upper Karnali. This is the story of my first visit to Mugum Karmarong as well as my reflections on the progress during the first year.
Map showing in orange SUSWA main office in Surkhet and Pawan’s first year duty station Mugum Karmarong, in Mugu, as well as his home municipality in Salyan. See SUSWA maps here.
A development sector worker from Salyan
I have had different identities at different stages of my life. I am currently a father and a husband, and my wife and daughter live in Tulsipur, Dang. My parents and my sister live in the USA nowadays, while my brother and his wife have moved to the UK.
During my student life, I was popular among friends as a folk singer and caricaturist. After completing college life and getting my master’s degree in Rural Development and a diploma-level course in General Medicine, I also became famous in the district with the identity of a hardliner journalist while working in development agencies. Later on, I left the journalism profession and continued only in the development sector. Now, my other identities are less dominant and most people know me as a development sector worker.
I have more than 13.5 years of work experience in the development sector, especially in WASH and health. All this time, I have worked in my home district of Salyan for different organizations. In my latest position, I worked for SNV-USA for 5.5 years before applying to the SUSWA project. Little did I know at that point, that I was not only about to leave Salyan for the first time, but I was about to end up in what I think must be the most remote part of the world – Mugum Karmarong.
First travel to Mugum Karmarong Rural Municipality
I joined the Suswa project a year ago, on the 17th of May 2023. I almost immediately set off for source measurement and Annual Work Plan preparation in Mugu district, and I was excited to visit the mountain region of Nepal for the first time, especially as the Mugu district is famous for Lake Rara.
I started my journey to Mugumkarmarong from Surkhet on 22nd May 2023 by catching a flight to Talcha airport in the Mugu district headquarters. It was my first mountain region flight. I was excited to see the beautiful mountains but when the plane flew by Mabu and Ghuchhi Hill it felt like the wings of the plane were going to touch them, we were too close to the mountains! I trembled and thought of my daughter, thinking that my life was going to end.
Turns out, everything was fine and I was only scared as I had never traveled in the mountains before. Still, I was relieved when the airplane landed at the airport. The weather was clear, the mountains were smiling at me and the temperature was cool. I captured beautiful photos and was excited about my new post again.
From the airport, I got into a car where I met Rural Access Program III and Karnali Water Activity project staff. They informed me about the route to Mugumkarmarong Rural Municipality. They laughed and cut their tongue (astonished) after hearing that my plan was to travel to the remote villages of Dolphu and Mugu village. But being an advisor of SUSWA, I thought that that’s exactly why SUSWA is working here and why I am here – to reach those unserved, making sure nobody is left behind.
I also felt like they were exaggerating and Mugu is not that remote, because I saw pine trees similar to the ones in my home in the Salyan district. The road was also quite wide and the drive up to Chayala was not that bad.
On my first night in Mugu, I stayed in Chayala Bazar and talked about the geographical situation and lifestyle of people in Mugumkarmarong with the family members of that house. I explained to those people that I have to go to Dolphu, Mugu, and Puwa villages and asked for the time duration to reach there.
They kindly provided a detailed explanation of the path I had to take but also questioned me “Babu, will you be able to go to Dolphu? This village is isolated and the path to Dolphu is very much difficult. Save your life”. Now I was a bit worried.
On the 25th of May, I met with the Mugum Karmarong municipality key persons such as the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Subash Rawal, Chairperson (Tsering Kyapne Lama) and Vice Chairperson (Tsering Putik Lama), Finance Assistant (Rabindra Neupane) and Palika engineer (Hemanta Neupane) and I explained my agenda. This first meeting was important, and fruitful for building a good working relationship with the municipality’s key persons, as they would become the implementers of the SUSWA project activities in Mugum Karmarong. I was happy with my work as a WASH Advisor so far. They also thankfully appointed the Assistant sub engineer (Raj Bahadur Rawal) as a guide to visit Dolphu, Mugu, and Puwa villages and support the work I had come for: source measurement to ensure there is sufficient availability of water for the community, and Annual Work Plan preparation identifying steps needed to overcome WASH issues faced by community people.
And so, quite naive but with the support of the local government, I set off. The Journey to Puwa, Mugu, and Dolphu villages started on the 25th of May. It took a total of 9 days to complete the field visit on foot.
Travel to Dolphu and meeting the Bhote community
The journey to Dolpu is memorable… but also terrible. I climbed a 4750 m high mountain pass (Chayanatha Himal/ Ablang Himal) from Chitaikuna which is the only way to Dolphu. I had to reach there for source measurement to ensure the availability of sufficient water to serve the community. I faced altitude sickness for the first time. It was very difficult to climb due to shortness of breath. There were no houses or markets on the way to Dolphu. The path felt vertical up to Chayanath Himal and vertical down to Dolphu village from that location. The path was narrow with a vertical drop and sometimes the path was barely visible. There was nowhere to quench your thirst, with the river far down below. I saw a lot of wild animals on the way while Chayanatha Himal smiled down on me – a path both beautiful and full of obstacles. I was very thankful I had the support of Raj Bahadur Rawal, the local engineer. He carried our lunch as well; dry bread, salt, and chili.
I was very tired while climbing Chayanath mountain. Finally, we reached the top of the mountain. I drank a lot of cold water from the source and the taste was amazing. I still remember that water and I think I always will. Now a year later, 56 households of Dolphu village are served by this tasty water directly to their taps.
We started the journey from Chitaikuna at 8 am and we reached Dolphu village at 9:30 pm. Most of the villagers had gone to collect yarsagumba (the caterpillar fungus high up in the mountains) and it was difficult for us to find any place to stay for shelter.
The village is populated by Bhote community members (Bhote – an umbrella term for tibeto-nepalese ethnic groups). I had never met people from the Bhote community before. Luckily for me, Mr. Raj Bahadur spoke the Bhote language, and arranged a room and food. and I learnt a lot about their culture, religion and lifestyle. For funerals, the people in Dolphu cut the dead body up and serve it to vultures. People from Mugu and Dolphu villages also do not fish which surprised me. In Salyan, fishing in the river is very common and we cremate the bodies and let the ashes flow away with the river.
The route to the headquarter
After one day’s rest in Dolpu village, we started the journey to Pulu, the headquarter of Mugum Karmaron on the 2nd of June. I had not been able to contact my family for two days due to there not being any cell service. When I managed to communicate with my wife on the phone, she reminded me it was her birthday that day. During my difficult travels, I had completely forgotten about her birthday. This made me question why I’m doing this job and agreeing to travel to such a remote place – traveling to the most remote and difficult place and leaving my small daughter and wife home alone. At the same time, I thought that who else would reach the remote unserved communities and support them in their right to WASH, if SUSWA and I are not ready to do this difficult work and travel the same paths the people who live here use.
The way to Pulu was more dangerous than expected. The Dolpu Karnali river was flowing alongside, but much further down. I could not look down to the river due to vertigo, and the path was extremely narrow. The risks further included falling rocks due to wild animals moving above – I will never forget this journey nor the courageous people of Mugu who live here and use it. I really felt like it was only due to good luck that I safely reached Pulu bazaar that day! Lessons learned from this first travel to Mugum Karmarong headquarter include the importance of satellite phones, GPS trackers and local connections for the safety and security of us Advisors. I have since traveled the same path to Dolphu and Pulu again, but now with safety measures put in place by the project and accompanied by members of the established WASH Unit of Mugum Karmarong consisting of brave people of Mugu.
However, I did find my time in Mugu challenging as I sometimes felt bored and homesick, despite the work and my local colleagues.
An important job
My job in Mugum Karmarong rural municipality during the first months was to create an enabling environment for the successful implementation of the SUSWA project.
For that, I established good relationships with the local government and made them fully aware of the project implementation modality. Later on, I played a vital role in the Annual Work Plan preparation, water supply scheme selection (for construction/repair), the founding of a WASH Unit to oversee the project from the municipalities side, WASH unit staff hiring, and WASH unit/WASH Municipal Council capacity building for project implementation. Since then, my most important job has been to continue to capacitate and support the WASH Unit staff in procurements and starting the construction work at the scheme level.
The best part of working in Mugum Karmarong was the unity among all municipality staff and the good relationship we had with the elected municipality representatives. The positivity of the CAO and chairpersons, and their understanding of the SUSWA Project norms, was very good.
When I facilitated scheme-level Water Users and Sanitation Committee (WUSC) management and procurement training I was really appreciated by the municipality team and all the participants. This was the first training that was given to the WUSCs to capacitate them for the procurement process, quality assurance of external materials and local materials, billing process, and a few tips for the sustainability of the water supply scheme. In particular, participants suggested that the local government would copy this model and organize such a type of training before the implementation of any construction project in the municipalities. Creating this kind of clarity and transparency and accountability on both the municipality and community level was the biggest impact of SUSWA.
Workers from the village carrying pipeline for water schemes to the remote village of Mugu from the road head in Chayla Bazar
Monitoring 1 year of progress- success in a difficult context
After 10 months in Mugum Karmarong, I moved to the Salyan district to prepare work for SUSWA to be able to start working in the second fiscal year. In June 2023 I returned to Mugum Karmarong for a monitoring visit with the SUSWA Chief Technical Advisor (Read about the CTA’s reflections on the visit here).
During the monitoring visit, excellent progress was seen in two school toilet construction and the Puwa village water supply scheme. In the case of Dolphu and Mugu village scheme, almost all external materials had been transported on the long and arduous journey to the site and some construction work had started. As per the plan of Mugu WUSC, they may complete that scheme within this fiscal year, mid-July, while the Dolphu water supply is expected to be 80% completed by the end of July. Currently, in only the paint work remains on two of the schemes.
The main reason for this delay was the difficulty of transporting external materials to this remote area. Our scheme area goes all the way to the Tibetan border and the communities are very scattered. In addition to this, snowfall, seasonal migration, and yarsagumba collection were other factors behind the slight delay. For example, currently in June, almost all villagers are up in the mountains collecting yarsagumba.
In June 2023, some of the biggest changes in Mugum Karmarong as the first year of implementation recently came to an end are that there was now…
1 A well-equipped WASH unit office
2 Fulfilled WASH unit staff posts & trained WASH Unit staff
3 Municipality system / working modality for SUSWA project is well established
4 All external materials for construction had been delivered to the site
5 Construction work nearly finished
6 Sanitation movement had started
7 Community-level meetings are conducted regularly
7 Real sanitation and hygiene status is identified through KOBO tool data collection.
The three reasons I think have made this possible are:
1 Good municipality governance system
2 Capacity building of WASH unit staff
3 Capacity building of the users committee (WUSC).
Currently I am back in my home district of Salyan, working with the new municipalities to repeat the same success as in Mugum Karmarong while still remotely monitoring Mugu as well. I am very happy to be back working in an easier area. But, lessons learned from Mugum Karmarong are the importance of municipality ownership of the project and the honesty of WASH Unit staff for the implementation of the project. In Mugum Karmarong, both of these are true.
As we are working in what to me is the most remote part of the world, the fact that the project is progressing and construction work is being completed truly shows the demand of a project like SUSWA, and highlights the importance of working hard to reach unserved communities, those who are really disadvantaged, marginalized and excluded.
I feel very proud to be part of it.