Parts of Nepal go digital in their WASH response to COVID-19

Mobile phone user in Mugu (Photo: Suyog Raj Chalise, 2021)

For every 100 people, there were 139.45 registered mobile subscriptions in Nepal in 2018.[1] Over the years, mobile phones have increasingly been used by the development sector as cost-effective tools for data collection, behaviour change communications, and information dissemination. For SNV’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programmes in Nepal, mobile phones have been playing a crucial role in changing behaviours and monitoring progress, building on the knowledge on what motivates and blocks behaviours. In today's COVID-19 context, wherein regulation and related lockdowns are impeding field visits and in-person meetings, the significance of going digital is becoming even more important.

Emerging importance of mobile phones

Amid the significant and documented progress that Nepal has been making to improve access to WASH services in the recent years,[2] challenges remain in the areas of sustaining this progress and raising the quality of water, sanitation and hygiene services received by users. In addition, certain factors such as geography continue to hinder people's access to their human right to water and sanitation. For communities living in the remote district of Dailekh for example, exploring and utilising digital solutions for WASH programming could help deliver trainings on standard operating procedures for schools, health care facilities, and occupational health and safety despite the distance and restrictions to movement (imposed by COVID-19).

Mobile phone user in Mugu (Photo: Suyog Raj Chalise, 2021)

Mobile phone user in Mugu (Photo: Suyog Raj Chalise, 2021)

User group comes together to clean and protect water source (Photo: SNV/Ambika Yadav)

User group comes together to clean and protect water source (Photo: SNV/Ambika Yadav)

Based on SNV’s positive experience using mobile phones for monitoring and learning, Viamo,[3] ‘a global social enterprise improving lives via mobile,’ was contracted to co-design a strategy to disseminate critical information on handwashing and menstrual health and hygiene – using mobile phones – while at the same time, collecting COVID-19 and MHH-related rumours and myths that are contributing to the rise of disinformation and misinformation in SNV’s implementation areas.

The information dissemination strategy

The information dissemination strategy takes the form of a communication campaign designed to directly reach 236,469 people in the areas where SNV operates.

First, the strategy pushes out public service messages through an interactive voice-automated response system that may be accessed by Nepal Telecom (NTC) subscribers. Hosted by the 3-2-1 service (Suchanaa ko Sansaar) – a free and on demand national information platform that Viamo started in 2019 with NTC –  NTC subscribers may access information by dialling a short code (in Nepal, 32100) from their mobile devices. Once connected, a voice-automated response system guides the caller in navigating a menu of educational content options; from COVID-19 prevention tips, health, Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI), to WASH. Currently this service is available to the more than 20 million NTC subscribers in Nepal, free of charge. This makes the 3-2-1 service probably the most far-reaching and sustainable mass-communication service available in the country. Audio messages on 3-2-1 are available even to people with limited literacy skills and the most basic of mobile  phones.

Second, beyond the 3-2-1 platform, the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) content will be made accessible in the form of a Wanji game; an engaging, interactive narrative audio game that users can access from basic mobile phones. Through the Wanji game, content will be made accessible to potential users who may not have access to smartphones, stable electricity or the Internet, and/or may lack the ability to transliterate text to their primary spoken language. The game experience will help users actively envision how to operationalise key information provided on handwashing and menstrual health and hygiene in their daily lives. This is scheduled to be released in early September 2021.

Woman with phone (Photo: Saujanya Acharya, 2018)

Information on the go (Photo: Saujanya Acharya, 2018)

The information gathering strategy

Starting 6 September 2021, SNV will host a toll-free hotline for a few months to collect rumours and myths around COVID-19 and menstrual health and hygiene from project areas. The hotline will be available in Nepali and Maithili to also allow communities in the terai (plains) to communicate in their native dialect. IVR has been proven to be usable and culturally suitable for communities with low literacy rates as it offers information in audio versions and languages of users' choice. Deployment of the toll-free hotline service is slated for early September and will be implemented for the next 4-12 months.

Clearly, the high usage of mobile phones in Nepal has greatly reduced the time and cost of communication between multiple and often remote areas. In collaborating with partners in Digital for Development like Viamo, SNV is watching closely the deployment of mobile phone-based solutions, and community access and use - through a digital dashboard - to inform future WASH implementation activities.

Contributors: Sunetra Lala (SNV in Nepal) and Aradhana Gurung (Viamo)


[1] Based on published information accessible through Statista.

[2] As of 2020, Nepal is on track to at least basic sanitation services on SDG. Open defecation has decreased by 14% (Nepal and India) between 2015-2020: the third highest after Cambodia (16%) and Ethiopia (15%). Nepal’s open defecation rate is 10% while India has 15%. 62% population have access to basic hygiene service (availability of hand washing facility on premise with soap and water). 18 % population in Nepal have access to safely managed drinking water services (water from improved source located on premise, available when needed and free from ecoli and arsenic <50 ppb). However, Nepal’s safely managed drinking water services coverage is decreasing over the last two years. 49% of population have access to safely managed sanitation services (improved toilet which are not shared with other households and where excreta are safely disposed in situ or transported and treated off site). (JMP, 2021)

[3] Viamo has been working in Nepal since 2017 to provide digital solutions and meaningfully engage target audiences on their mobile devices. Amongst others, the digital solutions offered by Viamo are used to disseminate actionable information and behaviour change messages, launch communication campaigns, organise remote trainings, and facilitate information hotlines.

For more information, please contact Sunetra Lala, WASH Sector Leader - SNV in Nepal.