Running for change: Merging sports and sustainable safe water in Nepal


A member of the SUSWA project team in Nepal, Pauliina Meskus took this photo of her bib on completion of the Jumla-Rara Ultra Marathon.

Pauliina Meskus is a junior technical advisor working with SUSWA – a NIRAS-implemented WASH project funded by the Government of Nepal, the European Union, the Government of Finland and the project municipalities in Karnali province. An avid trail runner, she saw the opportunity to advocate for safe water through sports by engaging the project as a sponsor of the Jumal-Rara Ultra Marathon. And better yet, putting words into action, Pauliina ran the 46k-race earlier this month in the remote and mountainous region where the highest route point was above 4000 meters. She shares her experience in this blog.

April 23, 2024

The hills in the southern part of Karnali Province, the working area of the Sustainable WASH for All (SUSWA) project, are mountains by the standards of many other countries. In the north, several peaks rise to more than 6,000 metres. The scenery in Karnali is breathtakingly beautiful, but the mountains also create many challenges. Since I moved to Nepal earlier this year, I have admired the perseverance and ability of the locals to move, live, and maintain their livelihoods in this terrain.

Jumla district is located in the central part of Karnali, where three SUSWA’s project municipalities are also located: Kanakasundari, Hima, and Sinja. SUSWA has developed water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) governance in the municipalities, helped improve sanitation and hygiene facilities, raised awareness of dignified menstruation management to combat discriminatory practices related to periods, and renovated and built water supply systems. A chlorination system is built into all water systems supported by the project, the purpose of which is to guarantee that the drinking water coming from new or renovated taps in households is safe.

The Jumla-Rara Ultra Marathon: a platform to promote SUSWA's health and sustainability initiatives

As a trail and mountain running enthusiast, I have been keeping up on sports activities in Karnali and read about a mountain running race organised by the local Karnali Sports Club. The route of this annual event runs from Jumla district headquarters to Rara Lake and passes through Kanakasundari where SUSWA has been working.

At best, local events can serve as an excellent place to promote discussion and increase awareness of matters that are important in the community and for the well-being of people. Our SUSWA team got an idea: What if we participated in the race to ‘run for safe water’ and to ‘take steps together for dignified menstruation management’? We contacted Karnali Sports Club and to our delight, they gladly accepted our request to collaborate.

Minister of Youth and Sports Nepal, Mr Biraj Bhakta Shrestha and Mr Hari Rokaya, three time Everest Marathon Winner and a senior Athletic Coach with SUSWA’s WASH Advisor, Mr Dhruba Shresta. Photo by Titlana K.C

Bottled water is usually used in this marathon event due to transport challenges posed by the geography of the area and the quality of local water. Together with Karnali Sports Club, we agreed that SUSWA would pilot a newly-operationalised water distribution system at the event and offer water purified by SUSWA's inline chlorination system to the runners and volunteers at selected water points along the route. The goal was to encourage the participants to reduce the use of single-use plastic bottles during the race and raise awareness about the chlorination system promoted by SUSWA.

It all started with contacting Kanakasundari’s WASH Unit, who are part of the SUSWA project and the core implementing team in the project municipality. The team promised to help with the campaign and offer safe water for the event. The WASH Unit tested the water and made sure that the level of chlorine was correct and the water was safe to drink. The SUSWA team bought reusable water jars, which were filled before the race and transported along the route. These jars were donated to the Karnali Sports Club for future use in training activities and similar events where water has to be carried to areas where there is no access to a tap. Maybe one day in the future, all events in Karnali can rely solely on reusable water distribution options and safe tap water. The team also participated in the race briefing and the opening ceremony, where the possibility of using clean tap water instead of bottled water along the route was explained to the race participants and guests. Together with the Karnali Sports Club, the runners were also encouraged to keep the route clean and avoid littering. The Karnali Sports Club had also mobilised a group of active volunteers to support and guide runners along the route and make sure that the course was cleaned after the race. This proved to be important because runners still left bottles and other waste behind along the route.

Photo 1
The WASH Unit staff tested the quality of water before the race in Kanakasundari. Photo by Juho Haapala
Photo 2 (1)
The WASH Coordinator of Kanakasundari filling water canisters. Photo by Juho Haapala.

On the ground: the race day experience

I had the pleasure of participating in the run myself. It was hugely inspiring to see Nepalese women runners in the race and their talent left me speechless. It was also wonderful to see the active participation and support of the local communities along the route – never have I seen so many people offering roti and other food and water to the runners and cheering us on along the route. I’m confident to speak on behalf of all the participants and say that we are truly grateful for every smile, encouraging word, and refreshment shared by the locals.

The experience made me reflect on the role of local organisations and activity clubs in terms of SUSWA’s water, sanitation, and hygiene related objectives more broadly. Sports and other similar activities can provide meaningful empowering experiences for girls and women, and races like the Jumla-Rara Ultra Marathon make role models, such as those strong Nepalese women runners, visible for communities and young people. Sports and other activity clubs can also serve as excellent places for children and young people to learn good sanitation and hygiene practices and show that, for example, menstruation is not an obstacle to women's active participation, as long as they have access to safe menstrual hygiene materials and places to wash and use clean water.

Photo 3
SUSWA’s water point in Bhulbule. Photo by Juho Haapala.

Access to safe drinking water as well as waste management are still significant challenges in Nepal. With cooperation and technological solutions, steps can be taken to tackle these challenges and SUSWA was really happy to have the opportunity to collaborate with Karnali Sport Club in an event to advance these goals together. Our team learned a lot from this pilot campaign. We are especially delighted about the interest of the esteemed Minister of Youth and Sports Nepal, Mr Biraj Bhakta Shrestha, and the local leaders and stakeholders in SUSWA’s objectives and work.

Change can start with identifying challenges and opportunities. Even though the Jumla-Rara Ultra Marathon campaign was a single event and a pilot for SUSWA, it reinforced my belief in the power of working together and the potential of community-led activities and events in driving the positive change – towards which every step counts.

I want to thank the Karnali Sports Club team, the volunteers, and other partners and participants on behalf of the entire SUSWA team for this exciting and inspiring experience.

Photo 4
Proof of participation! Pauliina took this photo of the Chuchemara pass, the highest point of the race at 4017 metres.