After earthquakes in Nepal, rebuilding better

June 19, 2017

Even before Nepal’s 2015 earthquakes, Kamala Masakoti struggled to get the water her family needed. She had to haul it from a natural source near her home in a rural village tucked into a terraced mountainside in Nepal’s Lamjung district, in the shadow of the Himalayas.

Then came the quakes, and Masakoti’s water source disappeared. The next nearest one — more than an hour’s walk away — was soon being shared by hundreds. Masakoti’s garden suffered. Washing clothes and bathing became nearly impossible. Her children often missed school because they were helping fetch water.

“It was a very difficult situation,” she recalls.

Kamala Masakoti 

Fast forward to today and Masakoti has a tap in her own front yard. It’s one of a dozen that connect to a gravity-fed, earthquake-resistant drinking water system that includes a concrete tank and 9,300 feet of underground piping. Masakoti says the system has changed everything for her village.

“We can grow food. Our sanitation is good now. My children aren’t late for school.” 

Masakoti’s neighbors gather at their new water system’s tank.

And because the water system was built using a unique Pact model — one that puts communities in charge of their own recovery after a disaster — those benefits were just the beginning.  

In 2012, Pact began implementing USAID’s Sajhedari Bikaas project in six southern districts of Nepal. The six-year effort is helping rural communities better direct their own, inclusive development, in part by helping them practice with small-scale infrastructure projects. (While Nepal’s laws and guidelines for local planning and governance are good — they call for direct participation of communities, including women and ethnic and religious minorities — they’ve remained largely ineffective as the former kingdom has worked to decentralize after a Maoist insurgency and civil war that ended in 2006.)

After the earthquakes, which struck in April and May 2015, Pact sought to expand parts of Sajhedari Bikaas to five hard-hit districts. USAID funded Pact’s proposal, and that fall, Pact began working with communities to select small infrastructure projects — up to $10,000 — that would aid in their recovery.

Rather than hiring contractors to carry them out, though, Pact is using Sajhedari’s model, giving communities the chance to implement and oversee the projects themselves.

“Yes, we’re rebuilding critical infrastructure that’s improving people’s health, nutrition and livelihoods, and that’s so important,” says Pact’s Jason Katz, who heads the recovery portion of Sajhedari Bikaas. “But at its core, this is really a governance program. I would say the most important thing we’re leaving behind are communities that understand and have practiced how to do quality, inclusive, transparent development.”

Katz adds, “If they want to take on new projects, or if another disaster should happen, these are the communities that will be ready.”

Two years after Nepal’s earthquakes, which killed nearly 9,000 people, rebuilding continues. 

The model works like this. Once a project is selected, through a locally driven process prescribed by government guidelines, Pact helps the community choose from its ranks what is known as an Implementing Partner Committee, or IPC, to lead the project. Also called for under Nepali guidelines, IPCs usually include 11 people. Pact requires that more than half be women, and members of marginalized castes must also be included. Communities also choose a Project Monitoring Committee, or PMC, to oversee the work of the IPC. 

Villagers in Kalinchowk, in Dolakha district, gather to decide who will serve on the IPC for a drinking water system they are about to begin building.

Next, IPC and PMC members receive two days of intensive training on both the administrative and technical aspects of implementing their project – from keeping records and managing a budget to procuring materials, hiring laborers, following plans, and ensuring quality construction and accountability. 

IPC and PMC members in Lapilang gather for training at the start of a project.

Pact, its engineers and local NGO partners provide ongoing support while a project is under construction, and once it is finished, the IPC and PMC must host a “public audit,” where they report on their work in front of the entire community, answering any concerns or questions. (While government guidelines mandate such audits for public projects, most Nepalis are unaware of the requirement, including local officials, and the events are rarely held.)

Communities that receive Pact’s support must also come up with sustainability plans to pay for repairs and maintenance.

Community members in Babare, in Dolakha district, take part in a public audit for a Pact-supported crop irrigation system they just completed. 

So far, Pact has used the model to help communities in Lamjung, Gorkha, Dhading, Dolakha and Ramechhap complete 50 infrastructure projects, with 140 more underway. Besides drinking water systems, they’ve included community centers, crop irrigation projects, road improvements and micro-hydro power systems, along with micro-hydro power line repairs.

“What we’ve seen again and again is that by allowing communities to take the lead in their recovery, they end up getting so much more than a new water system or community center,” Katz says. “They’re getting skills and confidence. They’re working together and including people in the process who might normally not get a say. And they’re taking true ownership over the project, so the quality of the work tends to be a lot higher, and if it breaks, they know how to fix it.”

And then there are the psychological benefits.

“After a disaster like this, when it feels like so much is out of your control and everyone is treating you like a victim, there’s real power in showing people what they’re capable of.” 

Community members dig ditches for burying piping for a Pact-supported drinking water system. They spend hours each day fetching water. The new system will deliver water almost directly to their doors.

That was true for Masakoti, who, in addition to benefitting from the Lamjung drinking water system, served as treasurer of the project’s IPC, overseeing its budget. As a Dalit, or “untouchable,” Nepal’s most marginalized caste, she says taking on the role changed the way some in the community saw her.

“I’d never had any position like this before,” Masakoti says. “I learned many things and became confident.”

Kamala Panday, 60, a Brahmin who was a member of the project’s PMC, says putting women and marginalized castes in leadership roles left a lasting difference.

“There was no discrimination during the project,” she says. “We worked together, and we are more harmonized now and stronger.”

Had the water system been built by a contractor, Panday says, “we would have learned nothing then, and we couldn’t monitor the quality.”

Besides their time, Panday and her neighbors contributed the land where their system’s tank sits, as well as 190,000 Nepalese Rupees — about $1,800 — to add extra taps. The work took about six months and finished in January.

“It is our project,” Panday says. “We know how to manage it.”

Panday and Masakoti’s community 

Across all of the earthquake recovery infrastructure projects that Pact has supported, 59 percent of IPC members have been women, and many served as committee chairs.

While Nepal now requires that women be included in development, it is something many people here are still adjusting to, says Kiran Ghising, a Nepali Pact field coordinator.

Gradually, he says of Sajhedari, “this is setting the example and changing the situation for women here.”

The same goes for other historically marginalized groups, says Katz.

“Imagine seeing your mother who may be a Dalit or a religious or ethnic minority standing in front of a large audience at a public audit and presenting facts about the project she just led,” he says. “These activities have the power to change the mindset of an entire generation or community.”

The audits are setting an important example of transparency, too — both for citizens, who are learning to demand greater accountability, and for public officials, including local politicians who are now being elected in Nepal for the first time in decades.  

One such official, Bin Kumar Thami, who was elected mayor of a rural municipality in Dolakha in May, recently attended a public audit for a Pact-supported drinking water project. 

Bin Kumar Thami

He says he was so impressed with what he saw that he plans to insist on inclusivity and transparency in all future public development projects in his town.

“This approach is just what is needed at the local level in Nepal,” Thami says. “I saw such joy from the community for what they had done.”

Women in Gorkha district use a recently completed Pact-supported water system.

Meg Nalbo, deputy director of USAID Nepal’s Democracy and Governance Office, went a step further, saying Sajhedari Bikaas is proving useful for achieving inclusive development beyond the project’s working areas.

“We’ve institutionalized a lot of elements of the model within our other development projects,” Nalbo says.

“Our other programming is going to Sajhedari and asking for advice and models for how to better achieve their sector development results through a governance model.”


Photos and video by Brian J. Clark for Pact.