The journey to a sanitation milestone in Nepal


On 30 September 2019, the prime minister of Nepal proclaimed the country open defecation free (ODF) in front of national and international WASH stakeholders. Despite substantial challenges, major natural disasters and uncertainties - the country’s leadership, vision and commitment to its ODF goal, and beyond to total sanitation, has set an example in the South Asian region. It reflects a resilient and an unwavering commitment for better sanitation that is essential for improved health. It also puts a spotlight on the importance of long-term engagement, mutually enhancing partnerships, and an approach to sanitation development that supports continuous evidence-based learning and adaptation to dynamic contexts.


In Nepal, sanitation has been about movement building behind an uncompromisable objective for all, and by all. Thousands of stakeholders from various backgrounds and sectors were behind this achievement - from national/ local government officials, to politicians, local leaders, sanitation champions, interest groups, individual journalists and the wider media, private sector suppliers and service providers, religious entities, and donors and development organisations inside and outside of Nepal, and rights holders themselves. Their efforts were steered by the Nepal government's National Sanitation and Hygiene Master Plan 2011 (NSHMP) - the plan responsible for organising the human and financial resources behind harmonised approaches to advance the country's sanitation goals. 



Before the NSHMP was endorsed in 2011, the national coverage of sanitation was at 46%. Of the 77 (previously 75) districts in Nepal, SNV, with the support of its donors, has helped realise the ODF aspirations of 17 districts. Of these, 12 were through the support of DFAT in implementing SNV’s Sustainable Sanitation and Hygiene for All (SSH4A) programme; since 2010.

Playing a role within this larger sanitation movement at national and sub-national level, The Australian Government has supported SNV through three phases (CS WASH Fund 2010/11, CS WASH Fund 2014-18, Water for Women Fund 2018-current). In the previous phase (2014-2018)  alone, this support to the SNV WASH team and local partners realised progress by strengthening the capacity of 1,823 WASH coordination committee members including 593 women, to plan, implement and monitor progress on ODF at district and local levels; 158 local facilitators to effectively conduct sanitation demand creation in local contexts; 2,300 additional private sector actors to meet the rise in demand for toilets; and 111 local facilitators to promote evidence-based hygiene behaviour change campaigns. In these four years, Australian support contributed to the achievement of Open Defecation Free status of 51 Village Development Committees (VDCs, later restructured into “Wards”) and completing the ODF declaration milestone in five districts. As a result, 321,359 people were living in an ODF environment, from a baseline of 43% across three very different eco-zones and 324,444 people had gained access to handwashing and soap facilities near their toilets.    


Australia’s engagement in sanitation in Nepal started at a critical period when the country was still reeling from the public health disaster of 2009 caused by a cholera epidemic in the mid-western part of the country (now Karnali Province). This was a “rude awakening” for the national government to prioritise sanitation and hygiene in the national development agenda, and for WASH sector stakeholders to acknowledge that the heavy investment in subsidies for sanitation had not led to any meaningful increase in access.  


Political leaders, government agencies, and development actors from all districts in the region responded to the crisis by signing a joint commitment in 2010 to move forward in sanitation, following a basic set of principles and engagement at “multiple governance levels and with multiple sectors”. Such a Sanitation Conference, in various forms, was to become an effective tool in the subsequent years - to build momentum for the government-led, politically supported, “social movement” across the country, at village, district, region/ province, and national levels.


Australian support to SNV’s SSH4A programme in the previous phase therefore sought to demonstrate inclusive service delivery models at scale in eight districts; representing one small town and rural areas representative of all three ecological zones of the country - including the very poor and remote mountain districts in the Karnali zone, the scattered populations of the hill districts, and the wealthier terai, but with the worst status on Human Development Index measures and pockets of ultra-poor and landless communities. It SSH4A programme also responded to the Nepal Government’s emphasis on reaching the so-called 'dark districts’ (8 districts in the terai) of Nepal's ODF campaign where subsidy mind-sets and deeply engrained cultural practices were proving the hardest to change.


Since 1978, SNV has had the privilege to stand side-by-side with Nepal in its development journey; including in its sanitation journey. With the long-term support of partners such as the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), SNV was given the opportunity to learn from countries such as Nepal, engage in sanitation pilots, and mature (based on learning in countries) what would later on become the organisation's rural sanitation and hygiene approach - Sustainable Sanitation and Hygiene for All (SSH4A): an approach that is currently being tailored to the sanitation and hygiene ambitions of 160 districts across 18 countries.


This long-term partnership with a commitment to scale, quality, sustainable impacts, and knowledge and learning is key in making SNV's SSH4A what it is today, and in helping to end the final frontier of open defecation practice in Nepal including the plains of the terai. Many unsung heroes have helped to bring the country towards this final success, including, for example, SNV partners:


Brick kiln owner Dhanik Lal Shah from Surunga Municipality who built toilets for three houses in the Surunga municipality for free, and donated NRS 1.5 million (19,100 AUD) worth of bricks to the poorest households in the area;


Rajdeo Yadav, Chair of the Nepal Red Cross Chapter, who supported the campaign despite his misgivings about the no-subsidy approach taken by the programme. After witnessing first-hand how constant communication and behaviour change communications enabled entire Siraha district to become ODF, he became a believer and a promoter;


Chair of the Women's Network and member of D-WASH-CC of Bara district, Babita Jaiswal, who took a 6-month break from her job and travelled across the Bara district to mobilise women's support for the ODF campaign; and


Each and every household, who, themselves, invested their own time and resources into building a toilet.


Today, Nepal is an open defecation free country. But it does not end there. Along with Nepal's WASH stakeholders, SNV and DFAT are embarking on that long journey towards sustaining ODF, safely managed sanitation, leaving no one behind, and enhancing resilience. In the current SNV-DFAT partnership, management of gender and socially inclusive and sustainable rural water supply services is the focus to ensure sanitation and hygiene can be sustained. Targeting Dailekh and Sarlahi districts of Nepal, SNV hopes to help advance the current Total Sanitation campaign of the Government of Nepal.


Photos: SNV Nepal

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