© Helvetas

“We Are All Washing Our Hands These Days”: COVID-19 Responses in Karnali

FROM: Jane Carter, Punam Baral – 29. April 2020
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In early February the two of us visited the village of Badakhola in Dungeshwor rural municipality (ward 4), Karnali province, where Helvetas is installing a drinking water supply scheme through the support of charity: water. This blog follows up on how things are now.

Badakhola Drinking Water Supply Scheme

The Badakhola scheme is in part new, and in part reconstruction of an earlier government scheme that had fallen into disrepair. As in other Helvetas water supply projects, construction is overseen by a Water Users and Sanitation Committee (WUSC), whose members represent all the user households and are elected by them. We first met the chairperson, Lal Bahadur Buda, and the secretary, Yubraj B.C; the intake for the water supply is located above Yubraj’s house. As can be seen in the photo, the cistern had been well made, and was almost completed with just the fencing around left to be done. Lal Bahadur stands to the right and Yubraj to the left (between them is Resham Buda, a member of another water user household).

© Helvetas
© Helvetas

We then followed the outlet pipe downhill to the different household tap-stands it supplied – each one belonging to a family that had paid a one-off fee of around USD 10 for the connection (they will continue to pay a small monthly fee towards operations and maintenance). Our experience in Nepal has shown that private tap stands are better maintained than public ones. Some of the stands were better made than others, but we were assured that the finishing that remained to be done would erase any irregularities.

Right at the bottom of the scheme, having scrambled down a very steep path through sparse woodland, we met Kalpana Rawal, whose photo appears at the header of this blog. Kalpana lives in a small two-roomed dwelling beside the rather dilapidated house of her parents. She is not well to do; her husband is often away, and she has no children. Because of her disadvantaged situation, she was selected to become a “model household” demonstrating the five indicators of total sanitation – with a toilet; a tap for regular hand washing; a rack for drying washed cooking utensils; and a pit for responsible waste disposal, separating compost and material to be burned. Indoors she also has a water filter for drinking water. Kalpana duly showed us these novelties; the outdoor toilet, tap-stand, rack and waste pit can be seen in the photo below. The construction work was conducted as part of training for village maintenance workers; Kalpana oversaw the work, joining in the planning and helping where possible. The cost, however, was covered under the project. The idea is that if someone like Kalpana can achieve total sanitation, everyone should be able to.

© Helvetas
© Helvetas

Present worries

Lal Bahadur, Yubraj and Kalpana show the diversity of the water users in Badakhola. Lal Bahadur owns enough land to feed his family well and is active in community affairs; for this reason, the user group selected him as chairperson. Yubraj’s family largely relies on his job outside the village as they have relatively little land. Kalpana is far less fortunate, chiefly subsisting on daily labor. In speaking with them over mobile phone, it was apparent that they are all aware of the threat of COVID-19, and all are worried.

Lal Bahadur commented as follows, “I am locking myself inside the home, and I’m afraid of what will happen next. This is the season for cultivation, but this situation is making it hard for me to support my neighbor in farming work and for him to support me” (Referring to the common rural practice of labor exchange). “People cannot touch, we cannot meet, it is difficult to communicate.” Yubraj is worried about food supplies, “The cultivation of our land is not enough to feed us all the year round; we have to buy eight or nine months of our food from the market. This situation has been creating a food scarcity.” For Kalpana, her concerns are even more immediate, “We are facing the problem of managing food. We earn what we eat from daily wages, but now how to earn? How to survive if this goes on?”

© Helvetas
© Helvetas

A new awareness of hand washing – also in children

Yubraj observes that, “These days we’re hearing about the ways to prevent the COVID-19 disease on FM Radio. We had already learned about sanitation and hygiene during the training for the construction of the water supply scheme. As a result of the training and the information in the media, we’ve become really aware about hygiene.”

According to Lal Bahadur, “All my family members have started paying attention to hygiene, even my small grandson. Now we have the tap stand with a hand washing station and make sure to put soap there, even such a small child has started to wash his hands.”

Kalpana independently concurred. “Even small children these days are washing their hands. Since the completion of the scheme, we get all the drinking water that we need, and the tap stand in my backyard makes this very easy for me. Having water so conveniently at the house also makes maintaining hygiene easy, although I am not sure how I can afford soap.”

Perhaps this is one positive outcome of the COVID-19 scare: everyone, young and old, is taking the message of hand washing very seriously. Once a habit, it likely to remain so even after the pandemic - at least in places such as Badakhola where the necessary infrastructure has been put in place.

Emergency supplies  

As Kalpana’s situation illustrates, emergency support is needed to take preventative measures against COVID-19 and to alleviate the looming possibility of food shortages. For this, the local government is taking the lead in assessing the local situation, especially food supplies. Helvetas is coordinating closely with the municipal authorities so that we can respond as far as possible to local requirements. Happily, charity: water has given us the flexibility to divert up to 20% of the project budget to such needs, providing this does not hamper work that has already started. Thus, already this week, soap, water tanks, sanitizers and other requested materials are on their way to Dungeshwor rural municipality and other rural parts of Karnali.

Director, Programme Development
Jane Carter