Small town water and sanitation

Small town water and sanitation delivery: taking a wider view

Rapid urban growth, high concentrations of low-income populations, and run-down or non-existent infrastructure could eventually have a catastrophic effect on access to essential water and sanitation services in small towns in Africa and Asia. Supported by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in 2010 WaterAid and BPD carried out a one-year project that looked at new ways to understand and improve services, with an emphasis on two 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?

Using a broader lens, the team focused on more effective ways to anticipate how small towns might develop and evolve. The findings from this research are now available as a pdf, online and as a series of videos: 


Download the small towns report | Small towns website and videos



One reviewer likened the analysis to his mother-in-law's financial vulnerability! (Replace "mother-in-law" with "small towns" and "bank / pension firms" with "donors and experts"). His mother-in-law...


  • has little influence over the design and investment decisions (these are made externally by banks and pension firms);
  • does not really have the expertise to assess the soundness of those decisions made externally on her behalf or to know whether the decision-makers and service providers have the skills/ tools to actually run the system on a day-to-day basis;
  • may never have had to make decisions like that before on a similar scale (investment and planning horizon) and is at the mercy of "experts" who may lack incentives to get it right for her as an individual client, even though they claim to be doing what's "best for her";
  • faces enormous risk if the banks/ pension firms get it wrong, while the risk to them is minimal.


With small towns, a one-size-fits-all approach seems a bit like a clock that is not working - it gets it right but only once or twice a day!


Abstract from the 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. Classification by population size varies greatly, posing a significant challenge for the design of appropriate and sustainable water and sanitation services. Small towns can also show both rural and urban characteristics, which can complicate problem-solving approaches. 


In addition, most small towns tend to be diverse, dynamic and constantly evolving. 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 and 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.

Some key findings of the initial research


  • 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.

Suggested further action research 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.


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