Water that works: how an alternative management model for rural water supply is proving its worth in Nepal

Anjil Adhikari Governance, Innovation, Water

Traditional models of managing drinking water have delivered progress – but where these are failing, we now need to look at alternatives, says Oxfam’s Anjil Adhikari. In a blog for World Water Day, he shares a new model that could deliver a significant boost to water system performance and governance in rural Nepal and beyond.

Women from Benighat, Rorang Rural Municipality, in front of one of their new household taps. (picture: Susma Panta/Oxfam in Nepal)

Back in 2015, I was a part of Oxfam’s efforts to fix drinking water supply systems after the earthquake in Nepal. But as we responded, a stark statistic from a 2014 report loomed large in my mind: that 75% of water supply systems in Nepal were dysfunctional (more recent stats put the figure at 71%).

So, it seemed we were looking at installing systems that were likely to fail in a few years. The roots of the problem lay in how water supply systems are traditionally managed, both in Nepal and elsewhere in the world: with each individual community having to manage and maintain its own system in isolation via a “water user committee”.  While there are great examples where water user committees have managed systems well, we realised that there should be an alternative model where these systems were failing.

“Traditionally we have seen that those water systems have had to be managed by community members on top of their jobs, on top of the running of a household, on top of families,” explains Jo Trevor, Oxfam GB WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) senior advisor.

In a typical rural municipality in Nepal, there can be more than 120 water supply systems, each with approximately 30-50 households, though some have as few as 10 households. Water user committees in such schemes often can’t collect enough fund to sustain their systems, nor do they have the technical or financial ability to purchase technical support, with systems failing as a result. Yet these failing systems were continuing to be managed by water user committees because there was no alternative.

The traditional model, it seemed, was putting huge strain on communities who had neither the time nor the expertise to maintain their water systems. On top of this, each year, considerable funds were being invested by the government and development partners in water supply infrastructure that eventually broke down. The impact of these failures meant mostly women and children being forced to carry water from distant sources, or people drinking from contaminated sources.

Was there a better way?

An alternative model: managing drinking water through professional boards

Backed by funding from the Grundfos Foundation, a collaboration between communities, Nepalese local partners, local and federal government and Oxfam has pioneered an alternative model for sustainable water supply: bundling a number of small water supply systems together under the single management of a Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Management Board (RWSSMB).

This “Alternative Management Model” is the result of three years of research and groundwork, and has given over 30,000 people access to safe, and importantly sustainable, water services, with the most vulnerable and marginalised households prioritised. The project has been piloted in the Dhading, Rautahat, and Sarlahi districts of south-eastern Nepal, working with partners BWSN in Sarlahi, RDC in Rautahat, and FOCUS Nepal in Dhading.

The local government regulates each local board and ensures that quality services are provided to the community. In return for the service they receive, users pay a tariff, either by an app on a mobile phone, in a local shop or, in some areas, manually collected.

The boards have installed a decentralised database management system supplied by private sector partner Diyalo Technologies, which supports customer registration, account management, human resource management and asset management. This system also allows users to report faults and leaks which are then picked up quickly with trained technicians dispatched to fix the issue. The boards, with the support from Oxfam, are now establishing water quality testing labs to inform users about the quality of their drinking water. They are also establishing water treatment plants, through funding from Klub, a donor from Austria, in some areas where water quality has been an issue. Although delivering fully will take some time, we are gradually moving towards providing a professional service to users through the boards.

A fresh start for water systems

In the Jawalamukhi and Benighat Rorang rural municipalities of Dhading, 60 water supply schemes have been successfully brought back to use and improved through the Alternative Management Model.

Sunita Adhikari lives in Jwalamukhi Rural Municipality, Dhading, and, like most other women in the village, manages her household. That means feeding the family, cooking, washing, looking after husband’s and children’s needs, looking after the cattle, chickens, and looking after the kitchen gardening among many other tasks. All of these tasks need water.

Previously the only nearby water supply was an unmanaged pipe shared between multiple houses, vulnerable to failure as it was unmanaged – and operating for only a limited time each day. That meant she had to often walk uphill for half an hour to fetch water, sometimes making multiple trips.

“We used to carry water on our backs from half an hour away [over hilly terrain],” she explains. “There were pipes and we’d get water for a limited time, an hour or so in the morning. But, it wasn’t enough. So, we’d still carry water on our backs four days a week.’’

Now, the new supply system run via the local water board, has installed a household tap and transformed Sunita’s daily life. “Ever since there’s been a household tap, I haven’t had to go carry water. Now, I am growing vegetables like potatoes, cauliflower, and such myself instead of buying. It is easier to raise the cattle as well.’’ Communities are making the best possible use of water and wastewater from their household taps and are now able to grow vegetables all year round, even during the dry season.  

Wider benefits to the local economy and society

Jo Trevor of Oxfam GB points to wider benefits for the local economy that come with reliable and sustainable water supply via the new boards: “We are moving away from the voluntary, system-by-system approach. The result is you are creating jobs because what you then see is that suppliers of parts and shops can set up because they are also helping to make the system function better with whatever is needed: from the nuts and bolts to the pipes to the remote sensors, to the technology. You enable a broader impact than just the water and your taps. And so, you can see a more circular economy coming out from water.”

And, she says, the social benefits are also huge: “By ensuring water is accessible you increase people’s economic productivity; you increase girls going to school; you improve people’s health; you increase people’s engagement with water systems. And so, the knock-on effects of water are massive, and they make a massive difference in a community.

“So that ambition [to build sustainable supply] isn’t the end. That ambition actually allows for ambition around all the other things that Oxfam and other NGOs work on.”

A future model with global potential?

Key to the delivery of the innovation has been the flexible backing of the Grundfos Foundation, which has actively encouraged an agile approach that adjusts to the unexpected.

Kim Nøhr Skibsted, executive director, explains: “If we get… an NGO saying, ‘okay, we’re flexible, we’ll handle the situation on the ground,’ we like that very much. So, [we like it] if you can cope, and navigate in the reality you’re in and get things done, even though it’s not what we really planned on, agreed on. We like action more than talking.”

In a significant moment for the project in December last year, Nepal’s Minister for Water Supply Mahendra Raya Yada singled out this model – and declared it a solution to the dysfunctionality of rural water supply systems that should be replicated across the country.

And of course, the possibilities for the model do not stop in Nepal. Transforming traditional models of water management to make them more effective, reliable, and sustainable in this way could happen across many countries working towards delivering clean water for all.

The partnership has been very fruitful and a massive support to local government, says community leader Roshan Kumar Silwal, who is a ward chair in the Benighat Rorang Rural Municipality. “There has been a fantastic progress. Reproducing this model to other locations is a good idea,” he says.

What the model needs now is sustained investment to realise its potential. “While this is functioning well, our business model shows we need external financial support for operation of the board for the next five years to then allow the board to be self-sustainably operating,” says Archita Uprety, Executive Director of Benighat Rorang Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Management Board. “This is crucial as this determines sustainability. However, we aren’t sitting idle: we are reaching out to provincial government as well as the private sector. We are also thinking of selling sealed drinking water bottles in the highway.”

This is just the start for this exciting and innovative project – and we are now looking for new funding partners to come and join us! Find out more in the video below. If you are interested in partnering with Oxfam, we’d love to hear from you. Please email philanthropy@oxfam.org.uk and find out more about partnering with us here.


Anjil Adhikari

Anjil Adhikari is Thematic Lead, WASH and Water Governance, Oxfam in Nepal