COVID-19 revives Nepal’s WASH drive

Eco Soap Bank Nepal's Nicky Lama teaching a student about hand hygiene. Photo: ECO SOAP BANK NEPAL

Many Nepalis woke up on Wednesday to an early-morning SMS from the Ministry of Health and Population: ‘Let’s wash our hands with soap and water regularly and if possible refrain from going to crowded places to be safe from coronavirus disease. Cover your mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing.’

The public service announcement was aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19, but will revive Nepal’s hand-washing drive to control other infections like diarrohea and typhoid that kill mainly children.

COVID-19 has now hit 78 countries. New infections and fatalities are tapering off in China, but the outbreak is spreading in Iran, Europe and the United States. Visit Nepal Year 2020 has been shelved, the Sagarmatha Sambaad postponed, and the US Embassy has put off its Independence Day celebration at Phora Darbar.

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“There is still widespread lack of awareness about hand-washing, even right here in Kathmandu among marginalised communities,” says Diwakar Acharya, principal of Pulchoki School in Godavari. “Schools play an important role in educating children, their families and the community as a whole. This becomes especially important with the rise of new emerging diseases like coronavirus.”

Nicky Lama of Eco Soap Bank Nepal, which supplies recycled hotel soap to schools, has been visiting government schools in Kathmandu to train children in hand hygiene. “We have been training students and teachers so parents are also sensitised. It is a protective measure against not only coronavirus but already existing seasonal flus and common infections like typhoid,” says Lama.

Nepal was declared free of open defecation last year, and is a model for the region. While this is dramatic progress from 1990 when only 6% of households had toilets, public health experts have raised questions about poorly maintained toilets and lack of water supply.

In a 2018 study, the Global Sanitation Fund Programme found that 3% of households in communities declared ‘open defecation free’ did not in fact have toilets, and that in 5% of families who had a toilet at home, at least one member continued to defecate outdoors.

“Despite declaring open defecation free, toilet infrastructure is not always optimum, septic tanks are now filling up and availability and quality of water is questionable, particularly in urban slums,” says Sandhya Chaulagain, Hygiene officer at WaterAid Nepal. “But most  health workers are focused on curative measures and often wait for the outbreaks to happen instead of preventing them.”

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The additional challenge for the WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) campaign in Nepal comes from the lack of clarity about  jurisdiction and roles of each tier of government in the new federal structure. A new bill on WASH is undergoing review at the parliament.

Good news is that some municipalities have started collecting household-level sanitation, hygiene and water data using the GIS-based app NWASH. Says Govind Shrestha, policy specialist at the NGO WaterAid Nepal, “Moving ahead we need to find and then reach all the areas that do not have proper water and sanitation facilities yet. The challenge is to reach all 753 local bodies and as soon as possible.”

Recycling soap

Nicky Lama was volunteering at a hospital in Cambodia when she met Samir Lakhani, of Eco Soap Bank fame and Top Ten CNN Hero of 2017. She was so moved by his commitment to improve child health that she decided to return to Nepal and bring with her the campaign of collecting used soap from fancy hotels and recycling it to improve hygiene in schools.

Thousands of children die unnecessarily or fall sick due to diarrhoeal dehydration and typhoid. These illnesses have faecal-oral transmission, which can be easily prevented through regular handwashing.

Lakhani founded Eco Soap Bank in 2014 with the aim of saving, sanitising, and supplying recycled hotel soap for the developing world. The soap bank is currently operating in ten countries: Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzinia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and now Nepal.

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The Nepal branch works independently from the network and was set up three years ago. It networks with 23 hotels in Kathmandu including the Hyatt Regency, Hotel Annapurna, Soaltee Crowne Plaza and Kathmandu Guest House. Women in its Swayambhu workshop process the soaps to produce 7,000 bars of recycled soap per year, most of which are distributed in government schools in parts of Kathmandu Valley.

“At the moment we are a small set-up, but we plan to expand to hotels in Chitwan and Pokhara, set up workshops there, employ many more disadvantaged women and help spread hand-hygiene awareness in schools,” says Lama, who is now country director of Eco Soap Bank Nepal.

After finishing high school in Kalimpong, Lama went to the UK to study International Development. She then worked in Zambia, introducing tablet computers in community schools. Later, in Cambodia, she volunteered at a children’s hospital.

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Eco Soap Bank Nepal is looking to collaborate with agencies working on the WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) campaign. “We want to not only promote eco soap banks but also create employment and spread the message about handwashing with a focus on the prevention side of healthcare,” says Niall Kavanagh, an adviser to the Nepal operation.

The added benefit of the Eco Soap Bank concept is that it promotes a cost-effective hygiene product that also reduces waste generated by the hotel industry. Says project coordinator Narendra Lamichhane: “There is a misconception that recycled goods cannot be used. We need to change that, while at the same time creating jobs for women.”

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.

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