How to embed a human rights based approach into sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene programming

7 min read
A local traditional healer raises a question in a community meeting in Kalikot, Nepal.
Image: WaterAid/KIRDARC Nepal

Human rights are at the core of everything we do. To show how we put them into practice, Shivani Chemjong shares how we used a human rights based approach to develop a sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene project in Nepal.

Our programmatic approach puts human rights at its core and is comprised of three main components: empowerment, sector strengthening and partnership. We build our programmes around these core elements. To describe how we do that, here we share the development of our SuWASH (Sustainable Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) project.

SuWASH was a three-year initiative funded by HSBC, implemented in the hard-to-reach areas of Kalikot and Jumla, and the earthquake-affected areas of Kavre in Nepal, from June 2017 to December 2019. Guided by the principles of human rights, the project’s main objective was to reach unreached and vulnerable people with resilient water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services that would be sustainable during and after natural disasters, to fulfil their human rights to water and sanitation, as enshrined in the Constitution of Nepal 2015. We aimed to achieve this by empowering people as holders of these rights, and sensitising duty bearers to their responsibility to fulfil their obligations to meet people's rights.

Institutional preparedness

To integrate human rights into the project design, it was important for our staff and partner organisations to understand the human rights based approach and align it with their advocacy. We ensured this through orientation, followed by a writing workshop to produce toolkits for use in the project, and a training of trainers session for the staff and partners who would deliver it (see below for more detail). These training sessions enabled the partners to build plans that adhered properly to the programmatic approach, with human rights at the core.

Analysis and planning

We selected the project areas in consultation with district and local authorities. The partners then did a rapid assessment of the contexts, based on different components of rights to water and sanitation, sustainable availability of water (in the rural municipality), accessibility, affordability, equality and non-discrimination. With our implementing partners we assessed the capacities of rights holders and duty bearers to claim and fulfil the rights to water and sanitation. On the basis of these analyses of the challenges, stakeholders and available resources, we chose programme interventions to address the identified problems. 

How we implemented the human rights based approach on the ground

To embed the human rights based approach, we paid special attention to orienting the rights holders and duty bearers on rights to water and sanitation, and to promoting mutual accountability between rights holders (communities and citizens) and duty bearers (the municipality) for the fulfillment of WASH-related rights.

Step 1: Develop a training manual on the rights to water and sanitation

We developed the training manual on rights to water and sanitation in a participatory process with WaterAid Nepal’s technical lead. The participants were oriented on rights to water and sanitation, before a writing workshop with WaterAid Nepal and our implementing partners to prepare the manual, and a social accountability toolkit to use in the field. A detailed analysis of existing laws and policies was also completed during the workshop to identify claimable rights and understand entry points, to ensure accountability to fulfil WASH-related rights – both on the part of the rights holders to pay tariffs and take care of the systems, and on the part of the duty bearers to ensure access to facilities in line with the global to local policy and Sustainable Development Goal 6.

After the preparation of the manual, we organised a training of trainers session to instruct the partners and WaterAid Nepal programme officers to deliver it in the field.

Step 2: Develop guidelines for accountability tools

Training on governance accountability was provided to appropriate WaterAid Nepal staff, who then organised trainings for programme staff and partners. WaterAid Nepal staff wrote a social accountability toolkit, based on what we had previously learned by using social accountability tools at community level. Social accountability is a process of holding duty bearers to account in an amicable way, in which rights holders and duty bearers discuss the situation and issues for the improvement of services or fulfillment of rights related to water and sanitation.

Step 3: Empower rights holders

We trained water and sanitation users’ committees (WSUCs) and community members on the human rights to water and sanitation and the use of social accountability tools such as public audits and community scorecards. We also trained WSUCs on vulnerable capacity assessment (in which water and sanitation stakeholders come together to assess vulnerability of the locality, and rights holders identify capacity gaps among themselves, so coping mechanisms can be developed), water safety plans and construction procedures.

Step 4: Sector strengthening

We provided municipality and provincial leaders with training on rights to water and sanitation and their obligations to fulfil them, as well as orientations on social accountability tools and the Sustainable Development Goals. We supported the municipalities to adopt and organise public hearing events for rights holders and duty bearers to openly discuss WASH-related issues, and to build the draft water and sanitation bill. At the federal level, we supported the Ministry of Water Supply to ensure all the elements of the rights to water and sanitation were included in the WASH bill.

Step 5: Partner with relevant stakeholders

To build partnerships with relevant stakeholders, before the design of the project we conducted actor mapping to help us to identify potential partners at the rural municipality level. We provided training on rights to water and sanitation and on social accountability tools to these stakeholders, and supported WASH coordination committees to resolve existing issues. We also supported the National Federation of WSUCs to organise meetings with local WSUCs and to advocate their concerns to the federal Government. The capacity to take actions to fulfil the rights is equally important, so the project also provided technical capacity to rights holders and duty bearers, to ensure sustainable services.

Achievements of embedding the HRBA in SuWASH

In Nepal, one in ten people still do not have access to clean water. People living in remote communities, who do not have equal access to services, often have no choice but to drink dirty water. As a result, they get sick and their education and livelihoods suffer.

That is why we began this comprehensive WASH intervention for the vulnerable communities in Jumla, Kalikot and Kavre districts. Because of the unavailability of water sources and lack of awareness in these areas of the rights to water and sanitation, the communities’ WASH statuses were very poor. The earthquake in 2015 made the situation even worse, damaging most of the WASH facilities, which adversely affected the vulnerable communities of the region.

During the three-year period, the SuWASH project has:

  • provided improved access to safe and adequate water services to 9,706 marginalised and vulnerable people by building 1,980 water taps
  • given 2,203 people access to sanitation services by building 385 household toilets
  • reached 4,949 people with hygiene promotion activities. Hygiene behaviour change was one of the key components of the project that improved health, wellbeing and dignity of the communities
  • provided 3,145 school children with access to child-, disability- and girl-friendly WASH facilities at 17 schools
  • given 5,361 people in communities orientation on the right to water and sanitation. 23 people from the marginalised communities hold positions in the WSUC
  • oriented 364 local leaders on the right to water and sanitation, and trained officials of three rural municipalities and the associated WSUCs on WASH resilience

Explore the project's outcomes, key lessons and challenges in the full SuWASH learning brief, and experiences from the people who took part in the programme in Stories of change.

Meet some of the people from the communities involved in our film below.


The HSBC Water Programme

The HSBC Water Programme launched in 2012 as a collaborative partnership between WaterAid, WWF and Earthwatch. Originally, a US$100 million commitment, the programme's success in tackling water provision, protection, education and scientific research led to its renewal in 2017.

The impact of the $150 million programme has been far-reaching: it has provided 1.72 million people with clean water, more than 2.7 million with sanitation and 3.5 million with hygiene education across Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Ghana and Nigeria.

The programme has enabled the poorest and most vulnerable people in these six countries to live healthier and more dignified lives through access to safe water and sanitation, and improved hygiene.

Shivani Chemjong is Senior Officer – Communications and Fundraising at WaterAid Nepal.