‘Hygiene facilities need to be accessible to all:’ Tripti Rai, Country Director, WaterAid Nepal

"We need to respect the right to water and sanitation of everybody in the country. We also need to value the services we get because we have an unequal reach of the services."

  • Read Time 8 min.

WaterAid has been working in Nepal since 1987 to help ensure people’s access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene.  How is it working especially in the Covid context? What is the situation of water, sanitation and hygiene in Nepal? Nepal Live Today caught up with Tripti Rai, the Country Director of WaterAid Nepal.  

How would you like to introduce WaterAid? What are the major areas of work your office performs?

WaterAid is a global organization with head office in the UK. We started to work in Nepal in 1987. We’ve been very focused on providing services for all the communities the world over, including Nepal to help them access safe water, sanitation, and hygiene. It is an organization with a concerted focus on water, sanitation, hygiene and its integration with sectors such as health and education. 

How would you describe the overall hygiene and health status in Nepal? 

If we look back at the last decade, we see some remarkable progress in the sanitation situation, where Nepal was declared open defecation-free in 2019. We also see that more than 90% people have access to basic water services. With the sustainable development goals and the targets that the world has set, Nepal is also a signatory and has already committed to achieving the sustainable development goals. In this phase, some of the key challenges in relation to WASH are in achieving safely managed services, for example, the quality of drinking water and safely managed sanitation.

The recent reports from the joint monitoring program in 2019 suggest that only about 18% of the Nepali population have access to safe drinking water. This is the lowest in South Asia. We have contaminated water and we also see that the management of our toilets, the fecal waste is not very efficient. As we are not managing the waste properly, we are contaminating the environment and the quality of water and in turn creating hazards for our health. Though we have made some progress, we need to step it up. We must advance to ensure that everybody has their rights to water and sanitation. The current pandemic has been a glaring reminder that access to adequate handwashing stations with water and soap is still a challenge. Hygiene facilities need to reach everybody: in all the households, healthcare facilities, schools and public institutions. Unfortunately, we are still not quite there and we have to step up and accelerate progress.

What’s the state of availability of safe drinking water in Nepal?

We’ve been committed to ensuring everybody has access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene over years in Nepal. In the last decade, WaterAid and its partners working together have reached over a million people in Nepal with either safe drinking water or adequate sanitation facilities and by promoting hygiene behavior change. A significant contribution of the organization in Nepal is contributing to making it open defecation-free, advocating for the rights to water and sanitation, and consistently working to ensure that hygiene is prioritized. We work both in rural and urban contexts. Since Nepal has now entered the federal governance system, we work in rural municipalities, municipalities, and both have different contexts and challenges. 

We continue to help deliver water supply schemes managed by sanitation user committees in local areas where they work closely with the local government as well. We’ve also been working with public utilities in the country to help extend piped water supply services to households. We are working to reach people with basic services, but also helping with models in which we can innovate and work towards more efficient systems to be able to reach people with safe water.

How do you describe the WASH initiative in Nepal?

Regarding Water, sanitation and hygiene initiatives in Nepal, I think it’s good to look at the overall government context. In the current context in Nepal, we see that water, sanitation and hygiene have a level of prioritization in national policies wherein the National Planning Commission’s strategic plan for the country has targets to reach people with safely managed WASH. We also see that the Constitution of Nepal has proclaimed that every citizen should have the right to safe water and sanitation. I think those are building blocks to help ensure that everybody in the country can enjoy these rights. However, with these initiatives in the country, we feel there is a need to ensure that facilities and services set up are sustained and that it is providing the adequate and quality services that every citizen deserves in terms of being able to drink water which will not make you sick or use a toilet that is not unsafe, either in a public institution or in a healthcare facility, women and girls can use toilets safely. 

Water, sanitation, hygiene is definitely a no-regrets investment for any country. It’s the foundation for people to live healthy lives, dignified lives, and for all kinds of economic as well as livelihood opportunities.

As you said, you want to provide a proper sanitation system for women and girls, all over the country. And of course, Nepal has always been difficult for women to use public toilets. Not only that, even in their homes, they don’t have proper toilets or bathrooms to use. So do you think that is a big problem for your campaign or for the work that you’ve been doing? Is it a challenge to reach these women in rural areas?

It is a very important topic that you have brought to our attention. We’ve been working on hygiene, which has led us to look at menstruation and menstrual hygiene and how it affects women and girls in their daily lives. We’ve been working on this issue for over 10 years now. One of our key interventions has been to work with women and girls, especially to raise awareness and sensitize them around the importance of menstrual hygiene, to help them access information so they’re able to make informed choices for safe management of menstruation on their own. You cannot tell them you use this or that product, but it’s about making informed choices like all of us would like to do based on the information and knowledge that we have. And that’s around the women and girls and their own empowerment.

We’re also working with institutions, especially education institutions right now, and trying to extend that to public institutions where there are water, sanitation, hygiene facilities, but may not always cater to women and girls and their special needs such as a changing place, a proper dustbin, water to flush the toilet for example. We’ve worked in schools where we have a WASH in schools program with menstrual health and hygiene management and we have an integrated and holistic approach where we work with the girls to raise awareness, knowledge, and information. We also work with the teachers and the child clubs to help ensure there is an enabling environment, that nobody should shun you because you are having your periods which is a very natural process every month. So that way, we contribute to break taboos and discrimination, also ensure that whenever there is a need women and girls can access these facilities.

Sanitation and hygiene are some of the preconditions to ensure people’s safety from Covid-19. How challenging has this initiative become in the Covid-19 context?

Covid-19 has really shaken the whole world. It’s shaken all of us as individuals and the idea of basic sanitation, hygiene, access to water, and soap has become even more important now. Decades of research and work provide evidence to say that a simple act of handwashing can prevent so many diseases and keep your children safe and healthy. Drinking safe water without any contamination is very important for your health. You don’t have to suffer from preventable diseases like diarrhea, which so many children in Nepal still face. With Covid there is greater importance of hygiene in the context that helps us advocate and lobby for the prioritization of hygiene in the government plans, adequate resources for example, how we work towards building the capacity and investing in hygiene behavior change and enabling facilities. 

In the context of this current challenge, being able to deliver our work on the ground has been difficult. It has been important to adapt and bring in new ways of working. We’ve learnt to adapt, we’ve used a lot of online mechanisms. For example, even in our own ways of working, we depend on virtual meetings, virtual training sessions, and try to make it as lively as possible using more social media. But at the same time, because we also need to move around, we have adopted more preventive behaviors like wearing a mask, social distancing, being in open ventilated spaces, smaller gatherings, always promoting hand washing, as well as following it ourselves with soap and water, and where you don’t have soap and water, we carry sanitizers as well. And we continue to promote and advocate for access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene along with handwashing facilities for everyone, everywhere.

How easy it is for you to convince people to use the products that they haven’t used before? 

Trying to make sure that everybody has information about the various kinds of menstrual hygiene products, whatever is easy, accessible, affordable, people want to use it, I think it’s their choice. However, in terms of behavior change, whether it is in rural areas or in urban populations, we have learned that hygiene behavior change is difficult, and we need to follow different kinds of ways to motivate and inspire people to be practicing hygiene behaviors. We have done a lot of rigorous research, worked with different communities as well as different service settings. We have been promoting hygiene behavior change, which is based on a behavior-centered design approach. Long-term behavior change cannot be taught, it needs to be through self-realization and through motives that trigger change. 

In Covid-19 too, we follow the same approach. We designed hygiene behavior change campaigns, used creative methods that we thought might reach people and motivate them. We feel that has been quite helpful, but it needs continuous nudges, reminders, it’s not a one-off activity, it’s an ongoing process to bring social change.

Let’s just talk about your journey as a country director. 

I really like the job and the kind of role that I get to play being the country director of WaterAid Nepal. And even before this, as I was a development practitioner, I really feel motivated and inspired to be in the sector. When I came into WaterAid, I got inspired and purposeful because of the focus of this organization, the dedication, the strategic clarity that the organization has, and how it’s been continuously working to help bring change, and that also, with a purpose of ensuring that everybody has access to these three fundamental things: water, sanitation, hygiene.

How difficult it is for you to be in the development sector being a woman?

I think the development sector is one of the more enabling sectors because the foundations of this sector are based on values around human rights, equality and justice. I feel in my personal journey as a woman that we all still live in a patriarchal society where there are certain hierarchies, stereotypes regarding gender roles, and even maybe creating jobs in ways that could be stereotyped. However, given the enabling conditions for every girl, if you have a good education, and are able to voice your opinion, you are provided that enabling environment, like access to safe water, sanitation, hygiene, you’re still able to fulfill your potential.

I wouldn’t say that there aren’t any challenges but if you have been given the ammunition to be able to tackle those challenges, which I think every young girl should get, you can do it and you can possibly be in the sector and become a leader. I think enabling conditions start with your household, schooling, the kind of environment that your organization might provide. And with organizations like WaterAid, and other international NGOs, we have very good policies, human resource policies that are gender-friendly, and enabling, they give a lot of attention to things like safeguarding, they’re always promoting an environment where people feel safe and dignified and motivated.

What messages do you have for audiences, being a country director of WaterAid?

I am determined to make sure that our purpose is fulfilled. As people, we need to respect the rights to water and sanitation of everybody in the country. We also need to value the services we get because we have an unequal reach of the services. If we already have the reach, I think we need to value it, use it properly, and be responsible because we are now faced with so many challenges, like climate change. The hazards of climate change might result in people having even less access to good water.

There are still challenges in sanitation services, and maybe tomorrow, it will be all the more difficult to have services that are accessible and safe. We need to be a part of a greater purpose to help make sure that water and sanitation are prioritized in the government plans and policies and that there are adequate investments so everybody in the country has that service.

I want to request and suggest that we become a part of that bigger social change, we support actions to break these taboos around menstrual hygiene, which is definitely holding girls back and we create an enabling environment. So everybody gets a chance to enjoy all the basic services that are essential for us to live a healthy, safe, dignified life.