[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
Stories of dilapidated water taps, broken pipes and rusted equipment with no means for repair are common in the development world. To help ensure the lasting impact of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) initiatives, incorporating community-level mechanisms for long-term monitoring and maintenance into project design is critical. In Nepal, government and nongovernment actors collaborate to create village user committees that provide technical support for WASH initiatives, systematically collect money for repairs of water infrastructure and cultivate community ownership of drinking water and sanitation schemes.
The village of Kupchet—the northern-most community in Dhading District before reaching Nepal’s mountainous border with the Tibetan region of China—presents one example of a community that has developed a user committee to sustain drinking water schemes supported by MCC and its partner, Shanti Nepal. While another organization had previously built several water taps in the village, years of use, compounded by Nepal’s shattering earthquake of 2015, left the taps largely dysfunctional. With technical input and survey work initially conducted by the Shanti Nepal team, Kupchet now receives water from a clean source atop the steep hill towering over the village. Water flows through 230-meter long pipes connected to a cable suspended across a deep, rocky valley, an engineering feat deemed impossible in prior surveys. The subsequent formation of a drinking water user committee now allows for ongoing impact in an isolated community that is several days’ walk from the nearest road. Kupchet’s story highlights key best practices and learnings from Shanti Nepal’s many years of engaging with drinking water user committees.
First, user committees offer a local, immediate and cost-effective means of technical support. Shanti Nepal paid for two people on Kupchet’s seven-member committee to attend a basic course in construction and water pipe repair. These members were selected based on their prior relevant experience related to construction. The two trainees then led the new water system’s construction and installation processes, following the design of Shanti Nepal’s lead engineers and technicians. Active engagement from the very initial stages of project implementation allows user committee members to more deeply understand the purpose and design of water and sanitation schemes, develop a keen eye for regularly monitoring infrastructure and gain critical skills in maintenance and repair. Repairs beyond the scope of the user committee members’ skill sets may receive support from Shanti Nepal or be outsourced to other technicians. In such instances, user committees play a key role in connecting to local government bodies (in Nepal’s case, ward and municipality offices) that may contribute toward major repairs.
Second, user committees ensure proper infrastructure maintenance through the regular and systematic collection of fees from all households that benefit from water and sanitation schemes. In Kupchet, all 67 households contribute Rs. 100 (approximately US$1) per month to the user committee. This fund covers the cost of basic repairs as well as regular monitoring of the water system. Unlike other tax collection systems—the benefits of which may be less visible to a remote village family’s eye—local-level collection ensures greater accountability and a more direct cost-benefit relationship.
Finally, the influence of user committee members builds momentum toward an entire community’s collective ownership over water and sanitation projects. Dr. Krishna Man Shakya, executive director of Shanti Nepal, researched WASH projects for his doctoral studies in public health and explains that, “user committees institutionalize the community’s involvement and contribute to leadership development as well.” In the case of Kupchet, the influence of the user committee resulted in 65 people from the village participating in the installation of the water system’s pipes. Lined up along a precarious trail, these 130 hands grasped the cable and pipes as they were swung across a gorge and attached to cement pillars. Tak Tamang, chairperson of the drinking water system user committee, shares that there were many torn palms, but no one complained. There was a deep sense of pride and ownership in having installed a much-needed system through the village’s collective strength.
As in other community-based organizations, the selection and diversity of WASH user committee members is key to impact. While Shanti Nepal aims for 30-40% of committee members to be female, those with appropriate technical background tend to be male. Tak Tamang explains that women too can play important roles on committees, such as treasurer and secretary, thus contributing toward greater gender equity.
While the engagement of drinking water user committees brings many benefits, there are challenges that may impede project impact if left unaddressed. According to Dr. Shakya, these challenges may include: motivating committee members to consistently monitor water schemes, teaching them to handle funds transparently and mobilizing all users to feel a long-term sense of ownership over the scheme in order to keep up with repairs. As with any infrastructure scheme, community drinking water systems may create or exacerbate conflicts related to water use, drainage and maintenance. While a thorough conflict analysis in the project design phase helps reduce this risk, user committee members may find themselves challenged to treat all users with fairness and equity. Despite these challenges, Shanti Nepal and MCC have found that, when coupled with well-thought-through project design and appropriate levels of support, WASH user committees that monitor drinking water systems at the community level in Nepal significantly contribute toward the long-term use and maintenance of water systems and the sustainability of sanitation and hygiene outcomes.
Daphne Fowler serves as MCC’s representative for its Nepal program and lives in Kathmandu.