Public Health Team: Breaking Cultural Barriers for Water Safety in Nepal
Often it is not only one person who is the Brave Leader. It requires a team effort to do something different and go against the current in society. In Nepal, the Environment and Public Health Organization (ENPHO) is the perfect example of a stellar team making innovative steps in water safety.
ENPHO supports environmental studies, sustainable sanitation, hygiene and safe water drinking practices through the development and promotion of eco-friendly technologies such as water treatment solutions (e.g. chlorine, SODIS, Bio-Sand filters), rainwater harvesting, waterless ECOSAN toilets and waste water treatment.
The Nepal government has found that more than 80% of rural drinking water is severely contaminated, contributing annually to the deaths of 8,000 children under the age of five. Bio-Sand Filters (BSF), an adaptation of the traditional slow sand filter, which has been used for community drinking water treatment for 200 years, was developed with international help in response to that. BSFs address the most immediate needs at the household level, protecting against waterborne diseases.
The Bio-Sand filter has been tested in the field, and is very effective in removing pathogens, contaminants (e.g. helminths, protozoa, bacteria), turbidity and iron from drinking water (CAWST, 2015). Compared to other Household Water Treatment technologies, BSF is simple, well-proven, cost effective, and can be constructed and installed by using locally available materials (e.g. gravel, sand, cement and mold).
ENPHO was the winner of the 4th Kyoto 2015 World Water Grand Prize, and also the winner of the 2015 Humanitarian Water and Food Awards held in Malaysia. More than 500 people from nonprofits, charities, environment groups, government departments, academics, students and volunteers attended the events of the day, including our very own Margareta Barchan who was able to interview the team of ENPHO: Rameswor Adhikari, the Training Officer, and his colleagues, Mr. Ash Kumar Khaitu, Project Coordinator, and Ms. Pramina Nakarmi, Research Officer.
Margareta Barchan: Can you tell me about one specific situation when you stood up for your values and beliefs, and you were able to change the minds of a group of people you were talking to?
Rameswor Adhikari: One challenge would be when we conducted workshops for our BSF promotion among government stakeholders. It’s very hard to change their conception of water safety. We faced a clash between the local leaders of the Village Development Committee (VDC) and the entrepreneurs who are manufacturing and selling BSFs.
But the biggest challenge was educating people about water sanitation and some cultural barriers we encountered for people to accept that their water needed to be treated by using a certain technology. Some people would ask, referring to the filters: “It’s just a concrete box. Why should we use them when we’re getting water fresh from the stores? And if it costs money, why should we spend it on a filter?” So we conduct awareness programs, and try to convince people. Eventually we are able to change people’s perception of water safety.
Barchan: Can you now give an example of one situation where you have faced this original opposition from a family and then were able to change their minds?
Adhikari: One example is a farmer and his son Adur who often got sick. After using the filter, he noticed that his son didn’t get as sick as often. Even livestock saw a positive impact from the filters. The farmers saw that the farm chickens were getting healthier. So that’s when they started to think, “Oh, this is good!” After that, the farmers started to use the filters for themselves.
Barchan: Have you ever doubted what you are doing? Have you ever asked yourself if “this is the right thing to do?”
Adhikari: Before yes, and it was because this was a new approach that hadn’t been tested before, so we were not sure if it would work or not. But we thought that this could be helpful for our future. That’s why we tried this model and finally it was very helpful. It worked. It was a big step for us. The fruits of our efforts are just starting to be visible now. We started our project back in 2008, so it has taken a fair amount of time for our impact to be seen.
Barchan: Who was the initiator of the project?
Adhikari: The project was initiated by the CAWST-ENPHO team, which is led by Mr. Bipin Dangol. He has also been working on a Bio-Sand Filter Entrepreneurship Initiative with the team. The project has really grown as a result of our team efforts – we call it WET Centre, Water Expertise and Training Centre.
Barchan: What was the reaction from the people around you and people who wanted to use your filters?
Adhikari: When we were first thinking of forming this network for large-scale manufacturing of BSFs, we were not sure if it would work and didn’t know how other entrepreneurs that were part of the community would react. We were worried that they might see us as competitors or they might not agree with each other. But in the end, they saw the incentive of uniting over a common platform. The people that wanted to use the filters were actually very happy to have this kind of project because they were receiving some simple technology to treat their water in their houses in Nepal. They realized that the water quality in their house wasn’t good. The Bio-Sand filter solves that problem.
Barchan: Why do you think some people, like the team members of ENPHO, are more prepared to do these type of things – to be brave leaders, to have the courage and not to settle for a normal job, but to really do something that society would benefit from?
Adhikari: Some people are bigger risk takers and they also want to do something good for their community. These kind of people are the entrepreneurial leaders. Also some people are personally faced with problems that they need to respond to or else the problem is life-threatening like waterborne diseases. So in that situation, they want to start something new to solve this kind of problem. I think it’s got something to do with willpower and determination.
Barchan: What was a contributing factor to your sense of social duty? Or can you describe a moment when you thought to yourself: “Okay, I really want to serve my community and society in the best way I can”.
Adhikari: I have always loved working in the environmental sector. For others in the team is it because of their family background. Most of their family are engaged in social work. Doing this kind of work also shapes your family.
Barchan: Do you think you can develop courage and braveness in a community?
Adhikari: After getting the training regarding the Bio-Sand filters, the community members started to become ambassadors of water safety themselves in their respective villages. Training brings confidence to people. In addition to training, we provide them also with counselling and consulting support to increase their confidence.
Barchan When you were recruiting people both into your organisation and entrepreneurs to do the fieldwork, were you looking for these types of characteristics?
Adhikari: Yes. It’s a sorting assessment that helps us benchmark performance.
Barchan: Do you think the next generation will be more prepared to do this type of work around water sanitation and safety? Social media has been key in disseminating more information and knowledge in a way that you were not able to have before. So will the next generation of Nepalese people have better access to information to gain the courage to change things?
Adhikari: Yes, because millions of people are still out of reach from anything in Nepal. The remote areas -- people don’t have access to health facilities. The younger and more tech-savvy generations are looking for more than just to earn money, they also want to serve people. For example, there are several projects like Teach for Nepal, where young people are volunteering their time and getting involved in water sanitation education. We, we also have a youth wing at ENPHO. It’s called "Paschim Paaila, which means “Youth Network”, with more than 100 members who volunteer on education projects and were really helpful during the earthquake relief.
Your question also makes me think of this one Bio-Sand entrepreneur in Nepal, Manish Guragain, who started his own sustainable business when he was quite young and to support his father. This relates to ENPHO’s sustainability values of ensuring that leadership remains strong for the duration of a project (i.e. Volunteers Initiative Nepal). I am hopeful that more people like Naran will take the lead in furthering Water Treatment technologies and improving water sanitation in Nepal in general.
Local technicians can produce Bio-Sand filters after attending the five-day comprehensive training course designed by CAWST and ENPHO. Since sand and gravel are easily available in Nepal, there is a huge social entreprise potential for vendors to produce more of these sustainable and efficient filters. However, to avoid the duplication and unauthorized production of low quality, black market filters, producers must acquire a specific recommendation letter to purchase the mold which is only available in Kathmandu.
The project is very innovative in that it provides a sustainable business model in the water sanitation sector. In 2008, ENPHO established a centre to train local entrepreneurs to manufacture BSFs, which are not capital or resource-intensive. To date, 20 entrepreneurs have manufactured and installed over 28,000 BSFs to serve a population of 112,000. These entrepreneurs have founded BiFEAN (Bio-Sand Filter Entrepreneur Association Nepal) to regulate and continue to grow the sector.