Life-giving water for Lahan

by Hannah Gray.

I recently visited Lahan with WaterAid Nepal to see first-hand where The Beacon Project has drilled new boreholes, provided new taps, renovated toilets and installed water treatment processes. I had seen the statistics about the project from my home office in the UK. Until visiting the project myself, I didn’t fully appreciate the impact of these changes for the people living in Lahan, or the depth of relationships forged between project partners.

The town of Lahan sits in the flat lowlands of south-eastern Nepal, near the border with India. It has a bustling urban centre, with colourful shops, dozens of beeping rickshaws, and cows, goats and school children walking along the rutted streets.

Outside the busy town centre, women in beautiful saris work in the small fields, which are either studded with mango trees, heavy with their prized fruit, or surrounded by low earthen banks to hold water for rice cultivation.

Interspersed amongst this small-scale agriculture are clusters of timber-framed, mud-clad houses and modest industries like brickworks and gravel extraction. But in stark contrast to the humble homes and shops, standing mighty and imposing across the Lahan landscape, are two tall yellow water-towers.

Ram Narayan Chaudhary, 53, employee of the Nepal Water Supply Corporation, standing in front of a large water tower, arms folded, holding a wrench,
Lahan, Siraha, Nepal, September 2019. Copyright: WaterAid/Mani Karmacharya
The rural landscape of Lahan, June 2022. Copyright: WaterAid/Hannah Gray

These water-towers are the reason I visited Lahan in June 2022. I started working for WaterAid in December 2021, as UK Programme Manager for The Beacon Project, which is bringing clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene to the people of Lahan.

The Beacon Project is a partnership between WaterAid, Anglian Water (a UK utility) and its supply chain partners, the Nepal Water Supply Corporation (NWSC – a Nepali government utility) and Lahan Municipality (the local government body, responsible for water and sanitation services). Working together, the Beacon Project partners have a vision to accelerate universal access to WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) in Lahan. The name Beacon is important, because it highlights the importance placed by the partners on making improvements which are sustainable in Lahan and replicable to other places, shining a light on best practice and joint working.

WaterAid is an international NGO with a vision to provide access to WASH services to everyone, everywhere by 2030, in line with Sustainable Development Goal 6. One of the methods WaterAid uses to drive toward this goal is through Water Operator Partnerships, whereby water utilities across the world support each other through knowledge exchange. Through these partnerships, WaterAid can facilitate capacity building in organisations like NWSC and authorities like Lahan Municipality to exercise their responsibilities effectively.

Anglian Water wanted to be part of a project which models how a basic water network can be improved to provide robust and sustainable supply of clean water to all. As part of the project, employees from a range of teams at Anglian Water use their technical skills to help NWSC make improvements and trouble-shoot problems through regular online meetings and occasional technical visits to Nepal. Anglian Water raises money through corporate fundraising events supported by our partners and suppliers, running a monthly employee lottery and encouraging employee donations through payroll giving to generate funding for The Beacon Project. Anglian Water have committed to supporting the project in Lahan until 2030, and it’s my job to coordinate action from the UK side of the project.

WaterAid Nepal employs six people to work on Beacon Project activities in Lahan and the project also funds fourteen staff at a local NGO called DJKYC (Dalit Janakalyan Yuba Club). DJKYC raise awareness of rights to WASH services, and provide practical hygiene behaviour information amongst disadvantaged communities, with a particular focus on the marginalised Dalit community (who are discriminated against based on the caste system).

Before the project started in 2017, Lahan already had some water supply infrastructure – a few groundwater boreholes and pumps, two overhead towers and a distribution network. Those people fortunate enough to have access to a tap – approximately 20% of the urban population – received untreated water for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening, on a good day. Few of the poorer communities and none of the rural communities had a connection to this network. Many schools and poor communities had no access to functional toilets and there was no safe management of sewerage.

A lack of clean water close to home affects everyone in a community because of illness caused by waterborne diseases, but particularly affects women and girls who often miss out on education and employment opportunities as they bear the burden of carrying water required for household tasks like cooking and cleaning. Similarly, a lack of decent sanitation can lead to illness through disease, and there are safety risks associated with going to the toilet in the bushes, from the local wildlife and from unwanted attention from other people.

So, what difference has the Beacon Project made for the people of Lahan?

NWSC now supplies water for eight hours a day with improvements made to quality as well as quantity, following installation of chlorine dosing equipment. More people now have a household tap bringing them clean water (60% of the urban population). The Beacon Project has prioritised tap connections in Dalit communities. I visited some neighbourhoods where caste discrimination is still a reality. One of the women said that her community used to drink dirty water from shallow dug wells and bathe on the roadside. Now they have a tap, they get clean water and don’t need to bathe outside. She said ‘we went in search of stone and found gold’ – they didn’t realise a nearby source of clean water would totally transform their lives for the better until it happened.

As well as providing clean water and sanitation close to homes, The Beacon Project has built and renovated toilets in 15 schools, benefiting almost 5,000 students and teachers in Lahan. These children used to go to the toilet outside the school grounds in the bushes, and older girls would miss one week of school every month when they had their period because they had nowhere clean and safe to manage it. I visited a school which now has improved drinking water, toilets and handwashing stations. The students and staff proudly showed me round their new WASH facilities which are helping everybody at the school to stay healthy and make the most of their education.

As well as the improvements to infrastructure, through The Beacon Project DJKYC deliver hygiene training to the teachers, provide colourful take-home resources and play games to help the youngest to oldest children remember how to practice good hygiene. To ensure the learning is embedded, each school establishes a Child Club consisting of a small group of children and a teacher who check that facilities are kept clean, monitor handwashing and run special events throughout the year.

A teacher delivering a lesson on handwashing in a secondary school in Lahan, June 2022. Copyright: WaterAid/ Hannah Gray

During my visit, the Child Club chair (a 15 year old girl) gave an enthusiastic speech about sanitation and hygiene. She shared with me that the club had set up a room which has a day bed for girls to rest when they have cramps and a cupboard with free menstrual health products. She was bursting with delight that the girls can now come to school every day and not fall behind in their learning because of their periods. What really impacted me was how freely she spoke of periods in front of hundreds of her peers, her teachers, and the local leaders of her neighbourhood. These girls and young women are breaking down cultural taboos and helping to reduce gender inequality!

I’ve worked for many organisations managing brilliant partnership projects over the years, but The Beacon Project is next level. I haven’t yet found an adequate word to describe the working relationships between the partner organisations… perhaps ‘alliance’, or ‘cooperative’, or even ‘fellowship’…

Certainly, the individuals and the organisations involved are all deeply passionate about improving lives in Lahan and are making an incredible impact. The distinctions between organisations are blurred because the shared vision is more important, but the value that each party brings is very clear. Plans are made collectively, budgets are pooled, equipment is shared, offices are open to all, meals are eaten together, setbacks are jointly tackled, and progress is celebrated across the time-zones through our WhatsApp group!

The team from WaterAid and NWSC take some readings from a borehole meter, June 2022. Copyright: WaterAid/ Hannah Gray

There is still a way to go before The Beacon Project achieves its objectives. Boreholes fail out of the blue. Rural areas have no piped water supply. Land disputes hold up construction. The local utilities are understaffed. Reaching 24/7 water supply seems like a pipe dream! But despite the challenges of working in such contexts, I am confident that the project’s deeply embedded partnership and long-term commitment put us in the best place to achieve universal access to WASH in Lahan. And as we learn together, we will record and share our successes and failures to make sure The Beacon Project has a legacy which goes beyond Lahan.

Find out more about the Beacon Project:
·       Watch a video: The Beacon Project improving water supply in Lahan, Siraha district
·       Read more: https://washmatters.wateraid.org/the-beacon-project

Hannah Gray is WaterAid’s UK Programme Manager for The Beacon Project. She is mum to two children and is a member of Light of Life Baptist Church on the east Norfolk coast, and coordinates the Baptist Union Environment Network in the eastern region. Hannah graduated from the CRES course in 2020.