Water Crisis: Kathmandu's man of action

Kelly Jones meets Umesh Pandey, director of Nepal Water For Health
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The Independent Online
Umesh Pandey sits in his office in the centre of Kathmandu surrounded by maps, health charts and reports. "If you go to a village and ask the people to prioritise their need, water supply will always be number one on their list," says Umesh, director of Nepal Water For Health [Newah] - a dynamic organisation specialising in water and sanitation provision in Nepal.

The splendour of this mountain kingdom, makes it easy to forget the poverty and need here. For millions, the only water supplies are a hole in the ground, unprotected from contamination or river water which is used for washing or a toilet place upstream. In Nepal every year 40,000 children die before they reach five-years-old. Most of these deaths are caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation.

Umesh was once a national squad footballer and television producer before working in development. Now he sings for a hobby. "Last week I recorded my new song and one, "Ram Jaane", is number one," he confides.

But this showbiz pastime does not obscure his enthusiasm for his work: "My aim is to improve health and the quality of people's lives by helping people solve their problems. By working with communities on water projects, people realise their potential for improving things for themselves and go on to change their lives in a dramatic way. I had to leave football and TV because I couldn't have a cake and eat it. I had to choose one or another and I thank myself for being wise to have chosen this job which has made me safisfied for helping my own countrymen."

Established in 1992, Newah is now the largest organisation of its kind in the country. Non-governmental, non-profit making and non-political, its remit is clear cut and focused: water and sanitation for people in remote rural areas to improve health. It employs nearly 100 Nepali people from health workers to technicians providing support to 50 small village- based groups to build their own projects.

Such support can only be given once sufficient funding is found: "WaterAid is our main funder, but they see themselves as partners for development and not as donors or masters. WaterAid provides us managerial and technical advice. I believe attracting funds is not the big problem for us, rather learning to manage the money to meet our objectives for the maximum number of people is key."

This partnership between the UK charity and overseas organisation is a very successful one. By the end of this year's construction season in July, over 360,000 people will have benefited from projects supported by Newah using funds raised by WaterAid in the UK. Importantly, Umesh believes these benefits will be life long. "Hygiene education classes are as important as building latrines, tapstands or wells. People learn the link between poor water and ill health." He continues: "What is also important to the success of schemes is that they are planned, built and maintained by the people themselves. That way if the project breaks down, they can mend it."

However Umesh never lets his organisation's success cloud his appreciation of his lifestyle: "My wife expresses her hardship when she has to carry water in a three storey building from our tap in the yard of our house. The only way I can convince her of our fortune is to show some photographs of women in the villages. This makes her relieved she was not born there. And she agrees we have a responsibility to assist them."

For Nepal, organisations like Newah are making a difference. Every year people like Umesh are helping to make real and practical improvements to the lives of thousands of ordinary Nepalis.