Water Services Management

Water Supply and Sanitation in Small Towns

Over the past decades attention to water supply and sanitation provisioning has mainly focused on either large megacities (including peri-urban areas) or the rural hinterlands. Human settlements that fall 'in-between' these clear urban centers or otherwise rural settlements received far less consideration from academia or development agencies (de Boeck et al, 2009). These small urban centers typically have a mix of rural socio-economic context while they require urban-type technology (Hopkins and Satterthwaite, 2003). In other words, parts of small towns accumulate sufficiently dense population concentration to be served through piped systems, but also include dispersed areas that are not deemed profitable for the exploitation of centralized urban systems (Moriarty et al., 2002).  As a result of these circumstances, coverage of basic public services in small towns is neither adequate nor far-reaching (Brockerhoff and Brennan, 1998 in Cohen, 2006).

Under this research theme we focus on the following issues:

  1. Characterization of small towns and the impact on water services - Considering only size and density to distinguish urban centers from small towns may lead to over-simplification and does not sufficiently inform challenges of water service provisioning of water systems. Furthermore, the labels of 'urban' or 'rural' hold intrinsic value as the administrative boundaries and "the rationale for defining these boundaries are accompanied by political priorities and have compelling implications for policy development, as well as for the approaches taken for basic service provision" (Hopkins and Sattherwaite, 2003: 2). This focal point explores in greater depth the socio-economic and political characteristics of small-towns and their definition in relation to what these mean for the development of water and sanitation services in such locations. 
  2. Multi-level water service modalities in small towns - Decentralization of water services has long been promoted on the belief that decentralized service provisioning would make governments more responsive and efficient (Mugabi and Njiru, 2006; WSP, 2002; De Bercegol and Gwoda, 2013). As service providers (utilities, community-based organizations, etc.) in small-towns are often too small to undertake all service functions themselves, service modalities in small towns are usually characterized as multi-level arrangements in which functions are distributed over different geographical and administrative scales. How these functions are distributed over actors operating at different geographical scales influences the opportunities and challenges in service provisioning, including oversight, management, operations and financial mechanisms. 
  3. Infrastructures for water service provisioning in small towns - The water sector has traditionally relied on capital intensive and standardized infrastructure under the assumption that bigger is better (Ansar and Pohlers, 2014). The consequences of the traditional development is an "over-designed systems for predicted demands that never materialize, with the excess costs transferred to customers or simply leading to financial ruin of the utility" (Lauria, 2003: 1). If small-towns are distinct from rural areas or big cities, they would, arguably, also require different infrastructure for the provisioning of water services. Small towns may require ‘in-between systems’ or systems that allow small towns to transition to more sophisticated systems as they grow (Walton and Schoon, 2003). This focal point explores cases on the development of (flexible) physical infrastructure for service provisioning in small towns, and how such infrastructure operates in the context of small-towns.
  4. Financial mechanisms for small towns service provisioning - An important discussion in the water sector is to what degree water services should be self-sustained or should rely on government or external support. In view of reducing aid flows into the sector, or at least shifting in their objectives (OECD, 2000), the role of direct financing from users through water tariffs and the private sector (through partnerships) has become increasingly important in the discussions of financial mechanisms in the water sector (OECD, 2009). With a limited market size, however, water providers may require additional funding to provide services. As such, achieving self-sustainability is likely to involve a mix of financing instruments (tariffs, taxes, transfers) (WaterAid, 2013). What would such a mix look like for small towns? what are the considerations underlying a particular mix of instruments?

Coordinator: Mireia Tutusaus Luque