Interview | ‘Implementing GRID requires revisiting various sectoral policies and implementation instruments:’ Pragya Pradhan, Program Manager, UN-Habitat Nepal

‘We are already facing a climate crisis and we are trying to do so many things to adapt to and to mitigate its impact. We have to learn fast and act faster.’

NL Today

  • Read Time 8 min.

Pragya Pradhan joined UN-Habitat in Nepal as the Habitat Program Manager in July 2021. With Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning and a Graduate certificate in Disaster Management from University of Hawaii, she has more than 10 years of experience in urban and regional planning, safer building construction, disaster recovery and urban resilience sectors. Before joining UN-Habitat, Pradhan was working in UNDP Nepal leading projects on the implementation of the national building code and the development of risk sensitive land use plans and supporting housing reconstruction and recovery after the 2015 earthquakes. Here is a conversation with her on a wide range of issues.  

Could you please provide a summary of your professional profile and experience working with development agencies?

Academically, I am an architect, and I pursued my master’s in urban planning. Following my bachelor’s, I started my career as an architect in a private firm. After completing my master’s, I returned to Nepal and began working in the urban sector. Over the years, I have gained experience working in various organizations, starting with Institute for Nepal Environment and Health System Development (INEHD), an NGO, working in the public health sector and later as a consultant at Lumanti. Subsequently, I worked as a consultant for the World Bank, and then I served as an urban planner at the Ministry of Urban Development for two years, contributing to the National Urban Development Strategy. After that, I joined UNDP and worked in post-earthquake reconstruction and recovery, with a particular focus on resilience, for five years. In 2021, I joined UN-Habitat, where I have been working for almost two years now. Throughout my career, I have collaborated with the government, civil society organizations, development partners, and various stakeholders for sustainable urban development and resilience-building efforts.

What are the projects, mission, and priority areas of UN Habitat?

UN-Habitat has a significant history in Nepal, starting its operations post the late 1980s East earthquake. It supported the formulation of the first National Building Code in the early 1990s, and since then, UN Habitat has been actively working in the country. In past years, the agency has been actively providing technical support to the government in three main sectors: Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH), a vast spectrum of Urban Development encompassing planning, construction, and green building, and in Land governance and Land rights.

UN-Habitat continues to work through various projects that include initiatives to make settlements open-defecation free and increase water supply and sanitation coverage with a strong focus on inclusivity in services. In land governance, UN-Habitat is engaged at the national-level policy, providing necessary technical support in facilitating formulation of inclusive land policy, act and land use policy among others. Currently, we are working with 14 municipalities, particularly supporting the local government in addressing issues of land tenure security and landlessness. In the urban sector, UN-Habitat is working closely with the Ministry and the local government on disability mainstreaming in policies and plans, as well as localizing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the municipal level. Our emphasis is on achieving SDGs through localized actions, emphasizing the importance of local investment and implementation. To achieve its goals, UN-Habitat is involved in various initiatives such as promoting urban agriculture, improving urban environment and green building practices to ensure sustainable and inclusive urban development in Nepal.

What is your understanding of Green Buildings?

UN-Habitat Nepal through the European Union worked in the Green Homes Project from 2012 to 2015. The project was ahead of its time, when green action was not a priority, but now, it is gaining momentum though so much needs to be done yet. When we talk about green buildings, it goes beyond just energy and water efficiency to encompass a holistic approach. It is crucial to start from the design phase, considering factors like building orientation, resource availability, and thermal efficiency of materials. The choice of materials, technology, size of openings, and building height are all interrelated aspects. Green buildings not only aim to reduce energy consumption and carbon footprint while it should also smartly manage solid waste, rain, greywater and black water throughout their entire lifecycle. In essence, green buildings are holistically designed and operated to be environmentally sustainable and energy-efficient.

The National Housing and Settlements Resilience Platform (NHSRP) actually has a project called “Greening the Shelter,” which focuses on green initiatives and innovative ways to incorporate green building practices in housing settlements. What is the current status of policies around Green Resilient and Inclusive Development (GRID), green initiatives as well as in green building practices in Nepal?

The government policies are supportive to green and climate-responsive development with national commitments through the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and the SDGs. While the policies are supportive, the key challenge lies in their effective implementation. When the Green Homes Project was initiated, there were no existing guidelines or documents specifically focused on green building practices. UN-Habitat, in leadership of the Ministry of Urban Development, developed the Green Building Guideline in 2015. After the 2015 earthquake, the priority was less on green building but to provide shelter to the affected households, noting the magnitude of houses to be reconstructed. Now, with the climate crisis we all are facing, there is a renewed interest in the sector. The Green Building Guideline is being updated by the World Bank and other partners are actively involved in taking this initiative forward. The goal is to move towards implementing a Green Building Code to ensure that the guidelines are translated into action at the local government level. Hence, while the policies are supportive and gaining traction, the focus is now on translating these policies and guidelines into tangible actions and ensuring effective implementation at the local level.

GRID is a joint commitment of the government and development partners for sustainable development of Nepal. I believe understanding of GRID is crucial for everyone. The more we discuss it, unbundle it in components to ease understanding and in the language people can easily comprehend, the greater the acceptance, understanding, and internalization, the more we will see its translation in action. 

Has the implementation of green building bylaws begun at the municipal level?

Some municipalities have introduced green components in the building by-laws but to implement it across, first green building code has to be prepared, which is time and process intensive. 

To what extent do government policies support development agencies in working on GRID, and what progress has been made since the signing of the Kathmandu Declaration?

Since the signing of the Kathmandu Declaration, there has been progress in promoting GRID in Nepal. The Kathmandu Declaration, signed between the government and development agencies, aimed to shift the development paradigm towards a more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive approach. This approach emphasizes partnership and doing things differently in the face of global climate and environmental crises. To internalize GRID, the government and development partners are working together on policy notes for around 20 sectors where GRID mainstreaming is required. The government is preparing action plans for these sectors to ensure the implementation of GRID in policies and actions. Overall, the progress since the signing of the Kathmandu Declaration shows a commitment to mainstreaming GRID principles and practices across various sectors and policies, contributing to a greener, more inclusive, and resilient Nepal.

‘Green buildings are holistically designed and operated to be environmentally sustainable and energy-efficient.’

However, implementing GRID at the national and local level requires revisiting various sectoral policies, and its implementation instruments. Currently, the Ministry of Urban Development is reviewing the National Urban Policy in the new federal structure, with a specific focus on green, inclusive and resilient development. An example of an instrument we discussed is Green Building Code and municipal planning and building by-laws. Its implementation demands a multi-pronged approach, including awareness raising, capacity building, technical inputs and policy rendering.

Talking about GRID we cannot leave behind inclusivity and gender aspects. So as a woman, how was your journey in this field? What challenges have you faced and what is the way forward? 

Coming from a technical background, I consider myself lucky that I did not have to face many challenges during my studies and in my career as compared to the generation before me. Having said so, this is not a perfect world. In the technical field there are fewer women particularly in engineering and urban development sector. It is predominantly a male dominated fraternity. So as a woman, on top of it, if you are young, you need to give that extra pitch or work harder to make your voice heard and to prove your capacity. One needs to be ready to be the only woman in the meeting and to make people listen to you and make your position clear. That’s my personal experience and I see that our fraternity is still led by men. That narrows our perspectives and limits meaningful participation that could bring diverse ideas. So as a woman technician or a woman in this technical field we need to voice up and should bring more women to the forefront, particularly to strengthen women’s position in this sector. Eventually, we are all the reflection of our society, the struggle of women, gender disparity and exclusion we see around. It is even more important for all of us and in whatever we are doing to break the barriers and open doors for more women.

At UN-Habitat, we take a people-centered approach keeping the people and the community at the center in co-designing and implementing our projects. We are deliberate in using gender and inclusion lens in our processes and ensuring meaningful participation. Gender definition has evolved and there are excluded and vulnerable groups such as people from marginalized backgrounds, landless people, persons with disability and, further, the urban poor people living in informal settlements. So, we need to see how we bring their voices together by building their agency, facilitating meaningful participation in the decision-making process that requires tailored approaches.

What kind of challenges have you perceived in inclusivity when you go to field areas? Accepting that every community has its own dynamics, how impactfully can you work in this sector? Or in the context of the working modality of UN-Habitat, how can the dynamics of every community be understood and how can effectiveness be ensured?

In Nepal, there is so much diversity that you cannot generalize one community with another, and one approach doesn’t fit all. For example, we worked in Bungamati heritage settlements where people have distinct social structures. So we have to first understand these structures and the socio-cultural fabric in order to identify the entry points. In Bungamati, we recently completed the Parya Sampada Project that focused on 2015 earthquake reconstruction, linking it with economic upliftment and economic (livelihood) recovery of the communities devastated by the earthquakes. The project particularly targeted women and youth in these settlements to derive solutions addressing bottlenecks impeding reconstruction efforts and support in sustainable recovery.

Like Bungamati, any other heritage settlements have potential for heritage tourism. Hence, through a community-led process, a heritage settlement recovery plan was prepared to reconstruct and revitalize the heritage infrastructure. To ensure inclusive participation, various tools and methodologies were used, including flexibility in arranging meetings and focus group discussions to bring the voices of diverse groups. 

Further to support heritage tourism, various training packages on skill and enterprise development were developed around handicraft production, food, and hospitality sectors. The project prioritized engaging with home-based women, to provide them training and support in establishing tourism enterprises, as economic independence is a key towards empowerment, and it could be done through creating green jobs. There are almost 40 such enterprises established, most of them led by women.

What is the future of GRID in terms of policy implementation from federal to provincial and local level in Nepal’s context? What are the ways forward and opportunities 10 years down the line?

We are already facing a climate crisis and we are also already trying to do so many things to adapt to and to mitigate its impact. But now we have to learn fast and act faster. We need to find innovative ways of expediting localization of policies and develop or replicate local instruments, but we need to keep moving. We can’t wait for one thing to happen to trigger another thing, we have to work parallelly, maximizing cross learning and utilizing available resources to derive durable solutions. The local governments are the key actors. But they face the first brunt of the climate crisis while they also have to be responsible actors to improve the quality of life of the people and environment and ensure the development is inclusive. We need to understand that the capacities and resources are limited. So how we sensitize them about GRID, how we unbundle with use terminologies that are relatable, actions that are doable and how we can support them in internalizing it and how we build local capacity to mainstream GRID to take action through their fiscal year planning budgeting and even in their development plans or periodic plans is important.

[The interview is based on the first episode of GRID (Green Resilient and Inclusive Development) Podcast by NHSRP with Pragya Pradhan]