Knowledge sharing between a UK and a Nepalese water utility: lessons from the Beacon Project
In a unique partnership, water and sanitation experts from Nepal and the UK are working together to bring a sustainable and inclusive 24/7 supply to the town of Lahan, in south-eastern Nepal.
The Beacon Project is our collaboration with Anglian Water and its alliance partners, the Nepal Water Supply Corporation (NWSC), and the Nepalese government. Since the start of the project in 2018, we have shared skills to help the town of Lahan, Nepal, improve its water and sanitation services. Collectively, our aim is to create a model of sustainable, universal and equitable access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), or a "beacon" of how the sustainable development goal on water and sanitation can be achieved and scaled-up.
Sharing knowledge, skills and experience
Sharing knowledge is at the heart of the Beacon Project. Anglian Water and NWSC may work in different contexts, but they face many similar challenges in operating a piped water supply. They continually look for ways to reduce leakages and revenue losses, maintain water quality and use resources sustainably. NWSC identified particular areas where they needed support, including:
- Borehole drilling. Before the Beacon Project, NWSC Lahan faced difficulties in designing and constructing boreholes well. This caused high sand ingress, a short asset life and poor water quality. Anglian Water has helped NWSC develop a detailed specification for borehole drilling, hired a local hydrogeologist to help supervise drilling contractors, provided a CCTV camera for surveying existing boreholes, and provided borehole drilling training for NWSC branch managers across Nepal.
- Piped distribution network design and maintenance. Anglian Water has provided training and equipment to improve leak detection and repairs. It has also helped NWSC to develop a detailed Geographical Information System map of the existing network and build a hydraulic model, which forms an essential foundation for managing and planning any future expansions. Anglian Water is now helping NWSC to divide the network into District Metered Areas, to prepare for providing a 24/7 water supply.
- Little data on water quality. NWSC staff have been trained in water safety plans, and staff now test the water quality at boreholes, supply points and customer taps more regularly. In the past, operators would chlorinate the water but this is now done by an inline chlorine dosing system to improve the safety, reliability and consistency of chlorination, and reduce the risk of microbiological contamination at customer taps.
Benefits for staff
The NWSC Lahan team have built their skills through training, equipment and ongoing technical support, and the Lahan branch now acts as a “knowledge hub” for the utility. Branch managers from 23 other towns visit and attend trainings regularly.
At the same time, staff from Anglian Water and its alliance partners have found the project to be hugely rewarding. Regular calls and problem-solving with colleagues in Nepal have enabled valuable peer-to-peer learning in many areas, for example:
- How to develop appropriate solutions in situations where standard operating procedures or systems do not already exist
- How technology can be adapted to the context
- What can be achieved with limited resources
- The ability to operate in a more agile way
While Anglian Water and NWSC have shared skills, WaterAid Nepal has helped Anglian Water understand the political economy, cultural context and operational challenges faced by NWSC, bridging the gap between the different organisational ways of working. WaterAid Nepal's presence in both Kathmandu and Lahan, including a technical officer seconded to the NWSC office, has been essential as face-to-face contact is often preferred over email communication, especially with government institutions.
NGOs are often seen only as facilitators in water operator partnerships, but the Beacon Project shows that the role is much broader. It is difficult for Anglian Water and NWSC Lahan staff to communicate directly – partly due to the language and cultural barriers, and preference for face-to-face meetings, and partly because NWSC staff are often busy tackling operational challenges. Therefore, small working groups, set-up between Anglian Water and WaterAid Nepal, tackled many in-depth technical discussions, such as developing design specifications, recommendations and training materials for the NWSC team to consider in their planning. The groups also provided a forum for WaterAid Nepal to update on progress.
The project also involved experienced local consultants to do detailed studies (e.g. a drone survey and mapping of the network) or assist with site supervision (e.g. borehole drilling), which has enabled significant progress with relatively few visits from the UK.
What may limit knowledge exchange?
There has been great progress in Lahan over the past four years, but there are certain challenges. One is that the NWSC Lahan team is understaffed and has a significant backlog of operational challenges (e.g. replacing failed boreholes, responding to frequent leakages in the network). NWSC Lahan needs a critical mass of staff and the implementation of appropriate systems and processes to reach a place where staff are not continually “fire-fighting”, and have the space to invest in professional development and learn new skills.
Another limiting factor, at times, has been the Nepalese government’s procurement procedures which require the branch manager to accept the cheapest bid, with no consideration of technical quality unless it is a large contract. Developing framework agreements for procurement would help NWSC with cost savings and standardisation across all their branches – but this may take time.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the associated travel restrictions have made it hard for the UK team to stay updated on the rapidly evolving operational context and provide detailed support on the installation work. The lack of in-person contact also affects the inter-personal relationships that are so instrumental to the strength of the partnership, but the NWSC team has still made remarkable progress in the past two years with remote support.
How do we measure knowledge transfer?
The Beacon Project has made visible progress in the delivery of water and sanitation services in Lahan since 2018. This can be tracked by the infrastructure built: the boreholes drilled, the kilometres of water pipes laid, the number of toilets constructed. We can also see progress in some of the key performance indicators being introduced, such as supply hours, water quality, reliability, customer complaints, non-revenue water etc.
However, the amount and effectiveness of “knowledge transfer” is often less visible. It is happening, in Lahan and beyond, and can be counted in the number of training sessions delivered, and the number of participants. But this is not the same as measuring the knowledge gained by individuals and the organisation, and how this knowledge is then embedded in systems and processes. Similarly, there is no method, at present, for identifying the (potentially substantial) cost savings in NWSC which may be associated with the knowledge transfer.
These are key topics for all water operator partnerships, and ones that the Beacon Project will continue to explore as capacity-building continues hand-in-hand with the expansion and improvements to the water supply in Lahan.
John Knight is Regional Technical Advisor - South Asia and Tripti Rai is Country Director of WaterAid Nepal.
Top image: The practical session of monitoring groundwater in Lahan, Nepal.