Taking the work forward

“The key is not to plan everything in advance, but to put in “place a process of strategic learning that will allow for “corrections, shifts and even wholesale changes in approach.” – Ben Ramalingam, Aid on the edge.

Throughout this document, we have noted that our work has been very exploratory with a necessarily wide scope and iterative approach. We have probed a vast number of issues, looking for answers or at least clues to answer the five questions we initially posed (see Annex one – Our approach to the task: a unique opportunity). The task has been particularly challenging due to the little data that exists on the subject. We also knew that we were in fairly uncharted territory.

Our initial research identified a more contextualised way of looking at small towns, suggesting in more detail how they are different from rural or large urban settings. We intend to test our approach with the ultimate goal of improving the way that WaterAid as an organisation, and the WASH sector at large, addresses small town issues. Specifically, after using demographics, economic drivers and autonomy and decision-making as a guide to determining a typology of small towns, we seek to identify the implications, particularly for sanitation service delivery options, in each type.

We recognise that the kind of analysis advocated for in this document is not usually within the normal Terms of Reference of consultants and other development professionals when designing a water or sanitation system for a small town, or perhaps anywhere for that matter. As expected from the start, our questions require further refinements and testing to see whether the influences these factors have on water and sanitation demand and supply are as significant as we currently suspect. Breaking the issue of small towns down to these levels suggests that the work itself could also usefully dovetail with, for example, the work of the International Water Association’s Sanitation 21: Simple approaches to complex sanitation (IWA, 2009) which shows more clearly the investment options for sanitation.

Whilst much of the analysis in the document could be aimed at either water or sanitation, WaterAid sees the inherent complexity of the sanitation sector as a unique challenge that requires particular focus, for two reasons. First, due to the existence of multiple service providers, planning is critical and offers an opportunity to unbundle the various service streams.

Second, we suspect that the fragmentation in the sanitation sector allows more space for innovation, particularly if our wider analysis is done properly. Our research and experience has shown that systems tend to be over-designed from inception and thus are too expensive both in capital and recurrent costs for a small town to bear. Similarly, systems that do not plan for expansion are liable to be overwhelmed by demand and quickly become inefficient as well as ineffective. Our key questions are: How can small towns use a simplified planning process, in tune with their technical capacity, to provide for future service growth? What are the building blocks of service delivery that can be incrementally implemented and managed by small towns? Just as technological solutions will need to be calibrated for a particular demography and growth rate, appropriate financing arrangements for iterative development must also be discovered. Traditional one-off funding poses a challenge for sustainable and graduated service provision.

Both WaterAid’s planning grant research and the experience of our country programmes have underscored that over-centralised services are often inappropriate in a small town context. At the same time, we recognise that the administration is unlikely to be able to directly provide a comprehensive service that has taken all aspects of planning, delivery and control into account. Service provision, especially for the poorer sections of the community, generally involves multiple small-scale providers – often from the private sector or from civil society. Given this reality, it is important to develop appropriate business models for ‘unbundled’ services in small towns.

In conclusion, WaterAid and BPD are confident that this work has brought us significantly further in our understanding of the approaches necessary to tackle the issues of water and sanitation services in small towns. This work is by no means complete, but we suspect that we now have the basis to begin exploring in more depth some of the issues suggested above. We believe that this emerging analytical framework could be used to positive effect to guide processes of creating (at scale within a national or state context) small towns support programmes that include town-wide planning, support for improved local governance and the provision of menus of context-specific tailored technical solutions.

One of our tasks was to define a number of areas for ‘action research’ to be taken forward and tested within WaterAid’s programme of work at country level. Other readers may be drawn to different elements within the document. We can only hope that this will catalyse and influence further thinking. The authors and their organisations are certainly open to sharing and collaborating on the issues and would welcome constructive feedback on the analysis set forth in this document. In conjunction with this publication, we have launched a website which we intend to be a repository of knowledge on small town development and service delivery. We encourage other development actors to make use of this as a means to share their own work on small towns.