What’s the issue about small towns?

The challenge of defining small towns in the developing world

We know that the world is urbanising. Between 1990 and 2010, the world’s urban population is estimated to have increased by 1.2 billion people. As of 2007, over 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas. In many low-income and some middle-income countries, between one quarter and one half of their total population live in settlements with between 2,000 and 200,000 inhabitants. Indeed, for every large town in the developing world (with a population of 50,000 to 200,000) there are an estimated ten small towns (with a population of 2,000 to 50,000). Both the population and number of these small towns are projected to double within 15 years, and then double again within 30 years (Pilgrim, 2007).

Our first challenge in trying to understand their water supply and sanitation situation was to define what was meant by small towns. Whilst we generally recognise a small town when we see one, commonly accepted definitions are not readily available and usually refer to what small towns are not rather than what they are. Obviously, small towns lie somewhere between rural and urban. The criteria for defining the rural-small town – urban continuum varies significantly from country to country usually based on the population size of the primary city or cities. Thus, if there is any categorisation beyond rural and urban, population size threshold is the most commonly used defining characteristic for small towns. In some instances, small towns are categorised as those with a population between 5,000 and 50,000 and in other national classifications, small towns are noted as those between 5,000 and 200,000 people. This difference in population-based classification poses a difficulty for an international study. Once we begin to look at the specifics of service provision, intuitively we know that solutions could easily be quite different for cities in Bangladesh of 200,000 compared to those for towns in Nepal or Uganda of 15-30,000.

Defining small towns purely based on their population size fails to adequately capture their dynamism and diversity. At the national level, the danger of not understanding this diversity could result in generic policy, finance and technological approaches that saddle small towns of 20,000 people with inappropriate or unsustainable service delivery systems that are more appropriate for towns of 200,000.

Some countries do include other elements such as relative percentage of the local economy that is not agriculture based (for example, in Nepal) or relative percentage of men not working in agricultural-related jobs (for example, in Bangladesh). Such criteria may, however, be sufficient merely to distinguish urban from rural.

Most small towns exhibit both rural and urban characteristics. Rural characteristics relate to the drivers of the economy through agricultural linkages. Urban characteristics may relate to the role of light industry in the economy but are more often linked to living conditions as a function of density, and changing social systems as a reflection of increased diversity. Thus, with regard to a clear definition, the literature only stops at providing an understanding of small towns by looking at some of their common characteristics. For our purposes, trying to identify approaches for the provision of water and sanitation services, as stated in Pilgrim (2007, p77), ‘small towns straddle rural and urban spaces and have unique characteristics that make it difficult to apply either urban or rural strategies to them.’ The larger community size (as compared to rural areas) is often identified as a limiting factor for community participation and mobilisation processes; the bottom-up approach that has worked for rural villages fails or requires serious modifications as systems become larger and more complex (Doe, 2003). From a cost-benefit perspective, using traditional urban approaches the problem of small town water supply is one of large capital requirements against limited economies of scale. (Refer to Table 1 below for more detail on the classification of small towns in our six study countries.)

Typically, small town settlements in low-income countries that are not satellite towns in close proximity to a major urban centre, are characterised by a core trading centre and relatively scattered settlements around a densely populated commercial zone or core. Fringe areas tend to be more rural in nature, with mainly residential houses widely spaced from each other compared to the core. The main sources of income for populations in these areas are small scale trade followed by peasant farming and a few, generally agro-based, industries. Small towns attract people from rural areas, and tend to be diverse, dynamic and constantly evolving environments. The presence of schools, health and administrative centres may attract further in-migration (Mugabi, Dec 2006, p 188).

Thus, although available empirical evidence varies greatly, small towns in many developing countries have been found to act as centres of demand (markets) for agricultural produce from surrounding rural areas, and as centres for the production and distribution of non-farm goods and services for surrounding rural areas through the development of small and medium-sized enterprises (ibid).

Table 1: Small town classification from the six study countries

Study Countries Existing Classification of Small Towns Population Range Other Considerations
Bangladesh Range of different classifications – more based on administrative determinations than local population or other characteristics. 5,000-50,000 Urban (as opposed to specifically small town) criteria: (i) majority of male working population engaged in non-agricultural pursuits (75%); (ii) An identifiable central place where amenities and infrastructure services are provided; and (iii) density of population.
Madagascar Different classifications are observed. The National Institute of Statistics (INSTAT) considers an urban centre to be any commune in which the population exceeds 5,000. The law on urbanization requires all communes with minimum population of 10,000 to develop a strategic document for managing their district. District capitals and Urban Communes are those of between 10,000 and 80,000. / 33.6% (based on 2006 Department of Water and Sanitation database) National, Regional or Secondary Urban Centres are labels allocated after analysing the socio-administrative category of a given town (administrative function, population size, size of urbanized area, economic function, interdependence of the town (i.e. the level of facilities, other urban services and its structure), potential for the town to develop in the future (i.e. availability of energy sources, the context for further expansion including availability of land and space for urbanization).
Nepal Government administrative classification (small town classification may only be part of the discourse in the water sector) 5,000 and 40,000 Density greater than 10 people per hectare; Less than 50% of adult population involved in agriculture; Connected to strategic road networks; Basic infrastructure (i.e. grid electricity and IT services, secondary school education & health services)
Nigeria May not be enshrined in policy Widely defined as 5,000 and 20,000 / World Bank Country Report 2000 noted 33% of the population live in small towns. [Enugu State defines as between 8,000 and 20,000 as settlements of under 8,000 still exhibit "rural" characteristics]
Tanzania Defined by Local Government Act of 1982 based on population size 5,000-50,000
Uganda Based on population size 5,000-50,000 Urban centres of between 1,000 and 5,000 are defined as rural growth centres.

Understanding the urgent need for water and sanitation solutions in small towns

The latest report of the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (2010) indicates that the number of people accessing improved water and sanitation in urban areas has increased since 1990. Those increases, however, particularly in relation to sanitation, are not keeping pace with urban population growth. If efforts to provide water and sanitation to the urban un-servedc ontinue at the current rate, by 2015 more than 2.7 billion people will still be living without basic sanitation and 672 million without improved sources of drinking water. Given their pace of growth as noted above, we can assume that a significant proportion of this un-served population will be in small towns. Small towns thus pose a major development challenge and threaten to derail efforts to meet the MDGs for water and sanitation which seeks to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.

Investments in small towns have simply not kept pace with their large and growing need for services. Sector donors have historically supported either rural water and sanitation programmes or, increasingly, infrastructure and management in large cities. One analysis estimates that, ‘of the US$3 billion in Official Development Assistance (ODA) flows to water supply and sanitation in 2003, roughly US$360 million (or 13%) [appears to have been] allocated to small town or related activities’ (Cardone, 2006). Funding issues notwithstanding, just looking at policy and other areas, small towns clearly fall ‘between the cracks’ of a traditionally urban/rural divide in the development and policy discourse.

Challenging policymakers, donors and practitioners alike, small towns are generally characterised by rapid unplanned growth that includes increasing concentrations of low-income populations and run down or often non-existent basic infrastructure. Despite wide variation in national definitions of what constitutes a ‘small town’ as noted above, available data suggest that people living in these ‘intermediate’ settlements are among the worst served in terms of all basic services, including access to water, sanitation and hygiene promotion. Whilst the economies of scale at the geographic centre of small towns begin to allow (financially and technologically) for piped water supply systems, cross-subsidising to more costly, lower density, unplanned settlements on the outskirts usually becomes untenable. On the wastewater side, growing volumes of concentrated industrial pollution and human waste begin to pose serious threats both to public health and environmental integrity (including local water sources).

In some cases, policy reforms seek to support local service provision through the transfer of ownership and management of services to actors operating at the local level. However, local authorities still lack the capacity to provide or ensure delivery of adequate water and sanitation services in small towns. Financing mechanisms tend not to be appropriately geared to a staged approach that more adequately meets both the investment needs and the ability of local communities to pay. Technologies tend to come either from rural approaches or those of more major urban centres, making both the economies of scale and technological appropriateness insufficient at either end of the spectrum. Approaches such as aggregation of small towns into a single, joined-up service area make sense from a planning perspective but require significant negotiation to make them work effectively. Despite these challenges, there is a huge opportunity to get small towns onto the right track before the unregulated growth spirals into the inordinately more difficult and complex challenges faced in large urban centres.

The conundrums of small towns

As noted, the more widely understood pressures of major urban centres, combined with a focus on the plight of the rural poor, have tended to result in neglect of small towns. A general uncertainty around which approaches will make a real difference has furthered this lack of serious focus on small towns from across the development community. When small towns area focus of assistance from central government and donors, both the lack of analysis and the lack of capacity, combined with certain rural or urban biases, tends to result in ‘cookie cutter’ approaches to water supply and sanitation provision that treat all small towns the same. Such approaches offer the same financing packages, the same technological solutions and the same management capacity training to all small towns regardless of their particular circumstances. There is clearly an analytical gap that requires closer scrutiny. Biases are not always deliberate but may result from a lack of clear practical experience where rural or more urbanised solutions are expected to translate directly into the small town context.

For obvious practical reasons, it is not possible to tailor solutions for each small town. Even advocating for more individualised treatment, or at least closer attention to classifications and typologies of small towns, has raised eyebrows for being unhelpful or too difficult. However, our findings so far seem to suggest that without a more tailored approach, small towns may very well be saddled with financial and technological approaches that, after only a few years, become burdensome and unsustainable. Efforts to decentralise responsibility recognise that more needs to happen at the local level. The mechanics and practicalities of decentralisation certainly require further analysis. A clear recommendation is to understand what factors are generic to all small towns in a national or regional context and what factors require tailored solutions to meet a small town’s particular context.


How different are small town water and sanitation?

The businesses of water and sanitation service delivery, although inextricably linked, are very different. The ultimate client might be the same (for domestic services) but in comparison to water services, sanitation services are more complex, often involving multiple groups of stakeholders, considerably more land use management issues, different financing models and attitudinal shifts. Because of the emerging scale of the production of waste, sanitation services in small towns begin to require multi-pronged interventions in order to deal with faecal waste, wastewater, solid waste and drainage. This noted, each of these sanitation businesses can be broken down into sub-businesses, potentially providing opportunities and scope for the local private sector.

In the early stages of this work, there was concern that our analysis, like much in the water and sanitation sector, would be skewed towards water issues. Although this did in fact happen, particularly during the stakeholder consultation process, the contextual analysis framework presented later in this document appears to be applicable to making tailored service model decisions for either water or sanitation. With some modifications, we are confident that the initial lines of inquiry will be the same for both sets of services. Whether slight adaptations maybe necessary for one or the other may only become clear as this framework is further tested and developed in a future phase of the work.

Stating the obvious – lines of inquiry regardless of settlement size

Our research has been designed to assess whether or not there is something inherently different about small towns that would influence the demand or supply of water and sanitation services. Our approach challenged us to look well beyond those elements that are within the scope of all water and sanitation project designs. Although stepping out of our comfort zone has proven difficult at times, we were convinced that, without widening our scope, we would miss important causal linkages and contextual issues related to small town development.

For this reason, this document reflects our pointed approach to not investigating in any depth those issues that we consider to be generic to water and sanitation service design regardless of whether in rural, urban, small town, or peri-urban settings. These generic issues are both technical and procedural and include defining and understanding the following:

  • The service area and the standard demographic projections (usually based on available statistical averages) to understand water system demand.
  • Local geography, surface hydrology and hydrogeology to determine suitable sources, water treatment requirements and system design requirements.
  • Nature of the settlement patterns (for example, clustered/linear) to determine whether to centralise services or make them more localised.
  • Storage capacity requirements and technical sizing specifications.
  • Availability of land for infrastructure.
  • Existing standards, laws and rights (to municipal services) as they apply to the local context; statutory planning processes.
  • Available finance and financing mechanisms, including attitudes and practices around willingness to pay by the users.
  • Standard management practice models and expectations around asset managementand ownership.
  • Standard aspects around procedures and contracts.
  • Planning for provision as a service versus as a (series of ) construction project(s); attitudes to public service delivery (in relation to using business principles, cross-subsidising, ring-fencing, expenditure planning etc).

Again these all reflect standard design factors that would be taken into consideration whether designing a rural scheme, a small town system or an urban service. Our assumption is that these would not vary significantly for small towns.