Executive Summary

Our towns and cities are rapidly expanding. Worldwide, over 50% of the population now live in urban areas. In the developing world this rural-urban shift is even more extreme. Now, for everylarge town there are an estimated ten small towns – and these towns are expected to double in both number and size within 15 years and then, within 30 years, to double again (Pilgrim, 2007).

Whilst we may recognise a small town when we see one, there are challenges in defining and understanding them. In some countries small towns may be classed as those with a populationof between 5,000 and 20,000, in other countries the figure is up to 80,000 or even 200,000. This difference poses a significant challenge for the design of appropriate and sustainable water and sanitation services as the solution for a town of 20,000 will be vastly different to that of a town of 200,000.

Small towns can show both rural and urban characteristics. Rural characteristics relate to the economic linkages to agriculture. 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. This blend of urban and rural characteristics can undermine problem-solving approaches. Typical rural approaches such as community participation and mobilisation become more difficult to manage as communities get larger and more diverse, ie where traditional decision-making practices start to break down. On the other hand, small towns lack the resources of cities, making the application of urbanapproaches, where economies of scale or cross-subsidisation exist between users or between services, more difficult.

Most small towns tend to be diverse, dynamic and constantly evolving. They largely act as agricultural market and food processing centres and as centres of employment in small and medium-sized non-agricultural businesses. They normally attract people from rural areas and this expansion often accelerates when services such as water, schools and health centres are provided. Generally characterised by rapid unplanned growth leading to concentrations of low income populations, people living in small towns are amongst the worst served for basic services such as access to water and sanitation and hygiene promotion.

Investments in small towns have simply not kept pace with the growing need for services. According to one study, they are largely neglected by policymakers and donors who have tended to support either rural programmes or infrastructure in large cities. Although the figures mayhave changed somewhat, a study from a few years ago estimated that 13% of development assistance had been targeted at small towns (Cardone and Fonseca, 2006). The predicted growth of small towns is a major development challenge which threatens to derail efforts tomeet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for water and sanitation. Given the difficulty of tailoring approaches to individual contexts, in those countries where small towns receive assistance from central governments and donors, there tends to be a ‘one size fits all’ financing, technological, management and capacity building package.

Despite the challenges of tailoring approaches to meet each small town’s requirements, there is a real need to get small towns onto the right track before unregulated growth, weak capacityand unhelpful policies allow these burgeoning towns to become sprawling, un-served and unmanageable urban areas. With this in mind, working with Building Partnerships for Development (BPD), WaterAid, with funding support through a planning grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have spent a year trying to answer the following two main questions:

  • What is different about the challenges and potential solutions for the delivery of water and sanitation services in small towns as opposed to large urban or rural environments?
  • Can we learn lessons from other sectors that deliver infrastructure that could inform the design of water and sanitation solutions?

The ultimate goal was to identify promising approaches to service delivery and also to create an analytical tool or framework that would allow those planning water and sanitation services in small towns to make appropriate financial, technical and management decisions.

Admittedly, with regards to the second question, our research fell short. More work and maybe different kinds of conversations are needed to learn from other sectors. As to the first question, our initial research tried to discover whether there is something inherently different about small towns that would influence the demand or supply of services. The priority was to understand how best to shift the emphasis away from reactive responses to more adaptive, creative, reflective approaches. Using a broader lens, the team focused on more effective ways to anticipate how small towns might develop and evolve.

An initial discovery was that many existing small town assistance programmes tend to result in finance and technology decisions that then dictate key planning and design decisions. Our emerging approach suggests that the technology and finance decisions must more carefullyrespond to the circumstances on the ground. These circumstances seem to be most influenced by how the town is connected or linked demographically, economically and politically to surrounding areas and how these elements evolve within the town itself. Thus, demographics, economics and local governance seem to have a clear bearing on both the demand and supply of water and sanitation services. These need then to be factored more coherently into the design and delivery of services. Although largely beyond the control of water and sanitation professionals, not understanding these influences could derail efforts to design better delivery of services.

Looking at the emphasis on connectedness, several colleagues made the parallel between our analysis of small towns with peri-urban areas or satellite towns. Whilst issues of connectedness also certainly apply to peri-urban settlements and satellite towns, these areas cannot so easily be separated from their adjacent urban areas. They are intimately and automatically connected to the infrastructure, economy and employment opportunities of the cities they surround. Similarly, they are intimately connected to both the politics and ambitions or expectations of those populations living in the adjacent cities. The impacts of these connections on small towns are less predictable. Thus, while we suspect that many of the issues we have flagged will be relevant and useful for other types of settlement, the connectivity or connectedness aspect appears to be the most critical determining factor for small towns’ development.

Much of our analysis suggests that sustainability of small town programmes has not been helped by the ‘golden opportunity’. Several policymakers and practitioners along the way suggested that there is a danger in offering (relatively) big money to small towns to sort out their water and sanitation service provision. It can create perverse incentives on all sides to put in infrastructure that may not be affordable or manageable even after a few years. The teamsaw this first-hand in several places. Consultants and construction companies make more money from designing bigger projects; politicians make a bigger name for themselves by bringing in bigger projects; donors get more money granted, contracted or lent to meet more macro targets; populations get quick fixes.

Key findings of this initial research include:

  • Whilst certain generic elements apply to all small towns in the same country, such as election rules, national regulations, financing criteria, laws and decentralisation, each small town has its own particularities. A certain level of tailoring to specific contexts may be needed.
  • This tailoring of approaches should be based on wider analysis that reviews the economies, demographics and politics of small towns in more detail. Otherwise the result has tended to be over-designed construction projects that cause towns to suffer financially or in other ways once the design teams and consultants have left.
  • Small towns are inextricably connected and vulnerable to outside influences, both to the surrounding rural areas and the nearby larger urban centres, that impact on their economies, demographics and even decision-making.
  • Small towns do not yet fully enjoy the economies of scale that allow them to cross-subsidise from group to group or from service to service.
  • Small towns do not have the capacity to deal with shocks such as mass in-migration or other sudden changes.

Key onward action research work specifically for small towns will focus on these guiding questions:

  • Do we need to be thinking differently about how we characterise and group small towns? Key considerations may not be directly related to technical aspects of water and sanitation service delivery but rather to demographics, economics and politics.
  • Are there ways of delivering services (perhaps through the local private sector) that allow for a more flexible, staged or gradual approach to construction and financing rather than the big one-off project?
  • What kind of national support structures would be most effective in supporting small towns in evolving service delivery models?

It is clear that unless small town decision-makers pay more attention to the wider influences on the supply and demand of small town water and sanitation services, the resulting systems will not appropriately match the development needs of these towns and will result in unsustainable services. Ensuring that small towns do not fall through the cracks may very well be the key to meeting the MDGs.