November 26, 2008 2:00 am

WaterAid helps Nepalese quench thirst for change

The thirst of Nepal's people for equal opportunities and rights drove the past decade of tumult and terror in the Himalayan country, say the Maoists who waged a bloody insurgency in their name.

This year's election of a Maoist leader as prime minister, together with the abolition of Nepal's royal family, has completed the country's political transformation from a feudal monarchy to a republic.

But the Maoists' rise to the head of a coalition government has turned attention to demands for delivery of the socio-economic transformation they promised during the guerrilla campaign.

The thirst for change is at its highest, heightened by a boisterous populism that has thrived as the old certainties crumbled. That is especially true where the thirst is literal: safe water.

In Kathmandu, the mountain-ringed capital of gilded roofs and multi-tiered pagodas, the public water supply is notoriously haphazard - an issue being tackled by WaterAid, the charity the Financial Times is supporting in its seasonal appeal this year.

WaterAid is encouraging residents to channel their energies into organised activism by helping them form lobby groups and gather the evidence and confidence they need to stand up for their rights.

In each of the 17 countries where WaterAid works in Asia and Africa, one of its goals is to help poor people advocate for themselves and improve the accountability of often unresponsive service providers.

In Nepal it is working on particularly fertile ground because of the new-found political freedom, previously denied by the 240-year-old monarchy.

The insurgency began in 1996; it escalated after the 2001 massacre of the king and several other royals by a prince who then shot himself; and ended with a peace deal in 2006.

"People were accustomed to being quite submissive in politics in particular and in society in general," says Rabin Lal Shrestha, research and advocacy manager for WaterAid in Nepal. "But people became more aggressive during the insurgency and are now claiming their rights and demanding social justice."

Several water issues have already proved that ordinary citizens can achieve change in the Kathmandu valley. In 2004 the government proposed to abandon public water points in order to promote household connections. But civil society groups backed by WaterAid showed poorer families would be unable to afford a household supply and got the plan dropped in favour of rehabilitating the public posts.

In the Thimi municipality, a survey in three districts in 2006 revealed that the Kathmandu valley water supply board was piping in water containing dangerously high levels of iron - which can cause kidney and lung damage - even as neighbouring districts received a safe supply. In response, says Naresh Shrestha of Lyamha Pucha, a community group supported by WaterAid, residents marched on the water board offices carrying empty metal collection jugs and chanting demands for the same quality water as their neighbours.

The board said it could not afford the necessary improvements to its water treatment plants, so Lyamha Pucha drew up its own maps of the water network and worked out that, at little extra cost, the board could redirect water from other districts to those where it was unsafe.

"The community warned that if the board didn't connect them they would cut the pipes supplying the rest of Kathmandu," says Mr Shrestha, "and they would beat up the boss." The water board relented.

The saga also highlighted the challenge WaterAid faces in containing the excesses of such passionate campaigns. "People have become very demanding of their rights, but it's not necessarily backed by a sense of citizens' duties," says Suman Prasad Sharma, joint secretary at the Ministry of Physical Planning and Works. "They burn tyres in the road because someone's been hit by a car, even if that stops an ambulance getting to the hospital or stops children going to school."

Water also exemplifies the broader difficulties facing the former Maoist guerrillas, who remain divided over Nepal's future political framework while needing to transform themselves from liberation fighters into agents of development.

"There's a gap between the capacity of the political parties and the demands of the people," says Mr Shrestha. "This is a headache for them, but for the time being people are giving the Maoists the benefit of the doubt."

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