Insights from the field: how water filters could save lives in Nepal

Social entrepreneurs can save lives in Nepal by selling affordable water treatment solutions (such as filters or chlorine flasks) that clean contaminated water, says water expert Fanny Boulloud. But creating supply and demand in the land of 6,000 rivers proves difficult.

Nepal, with its snowy peaks and 6,000 rivers that run through steep green hillsides, is not often associated with water scarcity or polluted natural groundwater. But the landlocked Himalayan country faces a water crisis that has inhabitants queueing up for hours to buy bottled water or use unprotected (and most often contaminated) wells.

The (two) devastating earthquakes in April 2015 ruined much of the water and sanitation infrastructure in a large parts of the country. Recent flooding in the south, called the worst floods in a decade by the United Nations, destroyed 90,000 houses and have put further pressure on the country’s water resources.

Kathmandu Valley, the country’s largest urban agglomeration with 3 million people, has been suffering from a chronic water shortage for a long time. The water supply system can only meet a quarter of the demand, leaving the larger section of the population to rely on untreated groundwater for domestic use.

Water scarcity is particularly prominent in the poorer cityquarters, says water expert Fanny Boulloud who runs the Safe Water II program in Nepal for the Swiss Antenna Foundation. “Nepal is facing a rural exodus. Urbanisation goes faster than the government can plan for. As many poor families do not have access to piped water yet, they are forced to use old wells, open rivers or ponds.”

During the dry summer season, when the city doubles with tourists and seasonal workers and the demand for water is highest, many wells dry up completely. Others are contaminated with chemicals or bacteria such as E Coli due to the lack of proper treatment or maintenance.

Recent government investments have brought more pipelines and taps directly into homes. However, many taps only work several hours a day, and the quality is questionable. Recent research suggests that 70 to 80 % of taps do not deliver water that is safe for drinking.

In Nepal’s mountainous rural areas, safe drinking water distribution is even worse. Due to the lack of pipelines, villagers often walk for hours to fetch water from glacier-fed rivers, springs and lakes. The tragedy, says Boulloud, is that natural water is not as clean as people think, or it gets polluted on the way home when stored in unsafe open tanks, often near the cattle.”

Diarrhea is part of daily life in rural Nepal, says Boulloud, and it remains a leading killer of young children under five. “The government is doing its best, but it doesn’t seem ready to prioritise this.”

Treating water at home

Boulloud currently coordinates the Safe Water Partnership in Asia, a network of NGOs that includes Antenna Foundation, Freshwater Network Association, and IRC. The partnership promotes household water treatment in Nepal, Cambodia, Guinea and India.

“In Nepal, people dream of safe water from the tap”, Boulloud says. The government of Nepal aims to provide everyone with access to reliable water services by 2030, in line with the global sustainable development goals (SDGs). “But before this is reality, we can save millions of lives by promoting water treatment products that people can use at home.” Safe water products such as filters or chlorine solutions could buy the government time to plan for water facilities for all, Boulloud says. It sounds logic, yet the reality is obstinate.

“After emergencies and during the rainy season, government and donor programmes respond by handing out filters or chlorine flasks for free.” But free gifts undermine the supply chains, and afterward they are not available anymore. In the case of Nepal, free distribution in the past has led to the collapse of chlorine supply in the entire country. “Shops do not sell filters after the rainy season, because nobody buys it as people don’t think it is necessary.”

Boulloud’s coalition of NGOs therefore started supporting organisations and social entrepreneurs who bring cheap water treatment solutions to the market. Such as ECCA, a Nepalese organisation that distributes the disinfectant chlorine solution ‘Watasol’ in schools.

The product (a 60ml chlorine flasks) disinfects the water on the school premises and ensures that stays safe for consumption. Additionally, the product is also available for students that can promote access to safe water at home through door-to-door campaigns.

The network also supports the Nepali organisation Minergy that installs water treatment systems at the work place, for instance construction building sites, to secure a better productivity. Working closely with a large company, they also provide training and instruction to seasonal workers on individual filters to disinfect water at home. Boulloud: “We hope that school children and construction site builders spread the message at home and in their community that unsafe water is a key element to waterborne diseases, but also that households can afford to purchase a filter to secure safe water and health for the whole family.”

Water should be free

Creating a supply chain for household water treatment such as water filters or chlorine flasks throughout the year is another obstacle. “Even if the filters cost only 30 USD or a chlorine flask 0.50 USD per month for a family of 5, people don’t tend to buy them. Even the poorest people have some money to spend. They may buy coca cola, or a cell phone. But they do not see the need to buy a filter or solution to purify their water.”

Without demand, there are no private companies that want to bring household water treatment onto the market. And without private companies, there are no distributors or shops who can resell.

Creating a supply chain for water filters throughout the year is another obstacle. “Even if the filters cost only 50 dollar cent per month, people don’t tend to buy them. Even the poorest people have some money to spend. They may buy coca cola, or a cell phone. But they do not see the need to buy a filter or solution for cleaning their water.”

Boulloud would like to see mainstream companies getting involved in the water sector for the population at the bottom of the pyramid. “Like Nestlé, if they can sell formula milk to mothers, wouldn’t it be pertinent if they’d address at the same time safe water for mothers and children? Or Proctor & Gamble who have developed powder sachets that clean water, but they spoil the market by giving them away for free through their CSR programme. It is available after emergency, but not developed as a real business strategy for rural areas and the supply is irregular. If they would sell those products in rural settings through reliable supply chain systems, they could make a real change.”

Boulloud knows the reality is that many companies do not want to enter the rural water market. “Too complex. Water is a really complicated topic: little benefit, high risk and large volume to make a living. But establishing public and private development partnerships to reach the rural poor would be the next step.”

Public campaign to reach the masses

This is where the SDGs come in. “Because in the long run, everyone should be served — including the rural or urban poor. People at the bottom of the pyramid are a huge potential target group. And they are customers.” But for that to happen, the country needs a massive public campaigns that raises awareness about the importance of clean water, Boulloud says. This in turn will create demand for water treatment solutions.

Just like the massive campaign that the government of Nepal launched together with the UN and several NGOs to make the country open defecation free by 2017. “It was a huge collective effort with commercials, TV stars, and community led total sanitation campaigns throughout the country. People stopped defecating in the open because they understood that it was best for their health and particularly for their children. We need something similar for safe water.”

The sanitation campaign convinced Boulloud that change can happen rapidly. “Few people believed that Nepal would be open defecation free that soon. Suddenly, in 2013, it became one of the countries making the biggest improvements in sanitation. If there is political will, if private companies join in, and if civil society buys in, together we can make that change for safe water.”