WASH system strengthening in the context of Nepal: Case study from 8 local governments

  Phurba S. Moktan  859 पटक हेरिएको

Kathmandu : A comprehensive approach is essential for addressing the fundamental components of the WASH sector and bringing about positive advancements in water, sanitation, and hygiene services. The WASH Agenda for Change (AfC) has outlined eight critical building blocks, which include: Institutional arrangements and coordination, Service delivery infrastructure, Monitoring, Planning, Finance, Regulation and accountability, Water resource management, Learning and adaptation.

The effectiveness and performance of local governments play a pivotal role in driving positive changes within this comprehensive approach aimed at achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6). An applaudable recent initiative involved bringing together concerned stakeholders to share important insights gained from the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) 2022 Sector Ministers’ Meeting (SMM). Additionally, the process included setting national priorities and commitments through a workshop organized by AfC’s country collaboration members. This endeavor will ultimately contribute significantly to enhancing the operational components that underpin the strengthening of the WASH system, ultimately helping us reach the overarching goal of SDG 6.

Meeting the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) by the year 2030 necessitates a substantial shift in the current trajectory of the WASH sector in Nepal. This shift is vital to ensure the provision of enduring WASH services to Nepalese citizens, thus upholding a fundamental human right as outlined in the constitution of Nepal. Achieving this objective demands a unified effort, bringing together all stakeholders in the sector, including government bodies, development partners, and sector participants operating at the three distinct levels of the country’s federated structure. This collaborative endeavor must be coupled with significant alterations in the approaches employed to fulfill the commitments to SDG 6 by 2030.

I was involved on a short research activity supported by Agenda for Change (AfC) Country Collaboration with the leadership of CARE Nepal on strengthening the WASH system primarily centers on assessing the capacity, which includes strengths and shortcomings, within the various building blocks designed by the AfC for WASH System Strengthening. These capacity-related issues may pertain to various aspects such as resources (financial, human resources, equipment, and services), gaps in plans and policies, institutional factors (like internal accountability and governance), among others.

In the context of Nepal, the AfC country collaboration has collectively identified, through their collaborative efforts in WASH System analysis, that capacity issues have become particularly prominent at the local government level. This is crucial for expanding the effective delivery of WASH services. However, the specific gaps and the necessary support for improvement have not been precisely addressed yet. To address this, the study was carried out in eight distinct local governments spanning four provinces. The aim was to provide advocacy for rectifying the deficiencies within these local government entities. Notably, the research was conducted in the working district of the AfC country collaboration members, with one Palika in their presence, and another without their presence.

Through the enthusiastic and robust engagement of all participants in the Multi-Stakeholder Coordination Workshop (MSCW), the evaluation and analysis of the 8 building blocks of the WASH System in 8 Local Governments (Municipalities) were carried out. This involved active group work dedicated to each of these 8 building blocks.

The process entailed in-depth conversations with key informants and interactive discussions in Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) involving specific target groups. Additionally, insights were gleaned from physical site visits. As a result of these comprehensive activities, the following interpretations and conclusions have been drawn.

Planning

The local governments in the study followed an ad-hoc approach, deviating from the prescribed 7-step planning process, which led to a lack of evidence-based or data-driven planning. Ward-level planning involved various community clusters, but their effectiveness in advocating for service needs and decision-making remained questionable. Plans formulated at ward and municipal levels did not consider gender equality and did not align with SDG-6 goals, resulting in unequal access to WASH services.

The absence of data-driven planning hindered efforts to reach unserved communities. While Karjanha Municipality implemented a NWASH-based WASH plan, other local governments lacked any comprehensive plans or external agency-prepared plans. Geruwa Rural Municipality, in particular, faced challenges in planning and adhering to the Local Governance Operation Act (LGOA) 2017, impacting project targeting, funding, and sustainability, ultimately indicating a weak planning process.

Finance

The local governments face resource challenges in allocating budgets for the WASH sector, particularly in social development sections, as dedicated WASH units are lacking. Although there have been budget increases for WASH in the current fiscal year, budget planning remains ad-hoc, with allocations not aligned with specific targets. Budget utilization typically ranges from 65% to 80% of the disbursed budget, but the lack of comprehensive costed WASH plans hinders effective budget allocation, disbursement, and utilization.

Additionally, the limited allocation from internal municipal resources stems from insufficient revenue generated through taxes, tariffs, and transfers. In summary, budget allocation for WASH tends to be ad-hoc rather than prioritized for underserved and marginalized populations due to the absence of proper planning, a common issue across the studied local governments.

Institutional Arrangement and Coordination

The local governments lack dedicated WASH units and clear roles for WASH focal persons, focusing primarily on waste management. MWASHCCs are present but not active, requiring a reform of their roles and responsibilities for better sector coordination. WSUCs are established for WASH interventions, but their coordination with technical sections is limited due to the absence of a dedicated focal person or unit.

Coordination between local governments and other sector stakeholders is often reactive, with development actors taking a proactive role. However, this proactive engagement tends to wane after project completion due to weak municipal capacity, resulting in challenges in sustaining ongoing projects.

Monitoring

Monitoring is insufficiently emphasized in most local governments, lacking a dedicated unit, monitoring framework, and a monitoring database. Technical sections coordinate with WSUCs for technical aspects, and progress monitoring is handled in an ad-hoc manner due to the absence of a proper focal person or unit. The preparation of a monitoring framework is mandatory but not yet in place, leading to ad-hoc practices.

Ward-level monitoring is also ad-hoc, and initiatives for conducting assessments or surveys for understanding WASH status and performance are missing. While sporadic external agency studies exist, they are not integrated into municipal operations. There is a need for improved monitoring practices, incorporating findings into planning, and ensuring data-driven decision-making and alignment with national targets and indicators. Municipalities have not monitored progress or performance against indicators or organized sector reviews for learning and future adaptations.

Water Resource Management

Local governments lack clear policies, guidelines, or approaches for Water Resource Management (WRM), and they have limited understanding of its importance. WRM is handled on an ad-hoc basis, with fragmented efforts rather than a unified and institutionalized approach, resulting in limited source protection.

Most local governments have not conducted essential studies to inform WRM policy formulation, except for Dullu and Aathbis Municipality, which partnered with external agencies for Water Use Master Plans. Enforcing water quality standards and regulating groundwater pollution control measures, particularly after ODF declarations, is not well-documented or strictly observed by municipalities.

Regulation and Accountability

Local governments approve policies and plans but face challenges in their execution, with only a few policies and plans, like WASH and City Sanitation Plans, existing in some municipalities. Despite the constitutional recognition of WASH as a fundamental human right, there is a lack of localization of federal-level provisions at the municipal level.

This results in weak enforcement, leading to low accountability and responsiveness from stakeholders. Dullu municipality, among others, stands out for implementing a strong accountability mechanism, adhering to water resource regulations and collaborating with neighboring municipalities for solid waste management. Their approach demonstrates strong leadership in regulation and accountability.

Service Delivery Infrastructure

The local governments lack clear planning and dedicated plans for WASH infrastructure, relying on external agencies for support. Inclusiveness, disaster resilience, and asset management are not well-incorporated, and there’s a need for improved operation and maintenance.

The targeting of infrastructure is not evidence-based, leading to limitations in engaging the private sector. Most municipalities prioritize water services over sanitation and hygiene. While some initiatives target schools and healthcare facilities, sustainability concerns persist. There’s room for growth in environmental sanitation efforts. Municipalities prioritize infrastructure delivery but lack a strong focus on sustainability, warranting a need for proper management models and regulations. Resource allocation for operation and maintenance remains inconsistent, hindering efficient asset management.

Learning and Adaptation

The local governments lack capacity for learning and reflection workshops, institutionalized data and evidence management systems, and information management for future planning and monitoring. Recommendations from monitoring are not incorporated into planning or reflection processes.

None of the local governments have Management Information Systems (MIS) integrating WASH indicators. Learning and sharing exercises are primarily supported by external agencies, but there’s a need for better replication of shared experiences into daily municipal operations. Sector review processes at the municipal level are uncommon, and there’s a need for a dedicated sector unit to coordinate planning, monitoring, review, reflection, and learning. Documenting learning from practices and monitoring to improve delivery processes and accelerate progress has not been a focus, but it should be promoted for better leadership in the WASH sector with data-driven information.

Furthermore, the opportunities for improvement in the WASH sector include the approval of NWASH-based costed WASH plans, increased awareness among local governments, a higher disbursement of the WASH budget, and an increment in WASH budget allocation in some LGs. Financial contributions from external support agencies can address resource gaps, and designated WASH focal persons are actively involved.

Reforming WASH Coordination Committees (WASHCCs), implementing need-based monitoring systems, and enhancing human resource capacity are promising prospects. Groundwater utilization and conservation practices offer potential in Terai-based LGs. The establishment of dedicated WASH units, inclusive service delivery, and post-implementation support mechanisms can drive progress. LGs are increasingly interested in WASH-related policies and interventions, while external support agencies and community-level WASH committees provide opportunities for sector learning and adoption of best practices.

Finally, the key recommendations include establishing a dedicated WASH unit within the municipality, initiating MIS-based costed WASH planning, disaggregating the WASH budget, formulating policies and regulations, creating a result framework with monitoring indicators, institutionalizing WASH benchmarking, improving planning with data-driven approaches, and developing an MIS system for evidence-based planning.

Periodic assessments and studies are needed to feed into the WASH database system, and there is a call for investing in more WASH experts and specialists to achieve SDG 6 targets and professionalize the municipality. In a nutshell, while the local governments in the federal context have the authority and budget for WASH, they have medium capacity strength across the 8 building blocks of the WASH system, and there’s still a long way to go to achieve global, regional, and national commitments. The importance of system strengthening is emphasized, and collective efforts from various stakeholders are crucial for success in the WASH sector.

(The writer is a WASH professional with extensive experience in the WASH sector including WASH system strengthening.)


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