Delivering sustainable water services in small towns: what have we learnt?

June 1, 2012 - By Rinus van Klinken and Steve Mwale, SNV Netherlands Development Organisation

The Millenium Development Goal (MDG) of reducing by half the number of people without access to safe drinking water was achieved in 2010, five years ahead of target [WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Report 2012]. The WHO/UNICEF report states that between 1990 and 2010 more than 2 billion people gained access to improved drinking water sources, such as piped supply and protected wells. But these positive figures hide some striking inequalities. Only 61 per cent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa has access to improved water supply sources. It is the poor, who are disproportionally affected.

Over the past few years SNV Netherlands Development Organisation has undertaken various programmes aimed at enhancing water services in small towns in a number of East and Southern African countries. In a recently published Practice Brief titled Sustainable Water Services and the Poor in Small Towns   SNV practitioners from the region share some of the lessons they have learnt from working with small town water utilities.

The changing face of poverty
While poverty is a mainly rural phenomenon in Africa, the face of poverty is changing. As rural settlements evolve into small towns and as these towns grow in size, the World Bank's Water Working Notes, December 2007  estimates that the number of people living in towns will double within 15 years and double again in the next 30 years. Already, for every large town there are 2–3 medium-size town and about 8–10 small towns. This has important implications for water service delivery, as argued in a recent WaterAid report  that describes small towns as a “missing middle”. Community-based management systems, suitable for the rural areas, are equally unsuitable as the more commercially oriented service provision approaches for large towns. Small towns (and peri-urban areas) require their own approach towards effective water service delivery.

SNV Practice Brief - WASH Sustainable Water Services and the Poor in Small Towns provides some practical examples and recommendations of how this can be done.

One of the key lessons highlighted in the Brief is that a one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work. It is important - both for the water companies themselves as well as for external agencies supporting them - to understand the context and the customers very well. With a business-as-usual approach it is unlikely that the challenges faced by utility companies can be met, and new ways of engaging with customers is likely to pay off in improved delivery. One way of doing this is through customer surveys and several case studies in the Brief document the results achieved through such surveys.

Secondly, it is important for the small town companies to improve their management practices. At the heart of this is the need to improve revenue collection because this is crucial for providing better services. SNV’s experience shows that while small towns lack the economies of scale for full privatisation of utilities, it is possible to introduce more commercial approaches aimed at reaching their service targets.

Finally, the Practice Brief makes the point that reaching out to the poor is not only a moral obligation, but also makes eminent business sense. This may well require adapting current practices, but if implemented well is likely to lead to increased revenues as well as to lower prices for the poor themselves. Examples are provided from SNVs practice on how the poor can be reached by the private sector working in partnership with the water companies.

Linking knowledge and practice
Providing safe water to the poor and under-served in small towns and peri-urban areas in Africa is a huge challenge. As Sanjay Wijesekera of UNICEF argues on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters Blog, mobilising international commitment is an important prerequisite in achieving sufficient scale. He singles out the Sanitation and Water for All partnership as a good example of such broad mobilisation. Clear and supportive policies at national level are also needed in order to clarify roles and responsibilities and providing effective oversight. However, if we want to move from stagnation or incremental progress to transformational change at the scale required to reach the set targets, the role of capacity development interventions is indispensable. The SNV Practice Brief illustrates how smart interventions that harvest international knowledge and link it to local context can make a difference in the lives of the poor.

The central role of capacity development in achieving improved and sustainable water services was further highlighted during a presentation of the Practice Brief at the African Utility Week, held from 21 – 24 May in South Africa. Following an admission by the South African Ministry of Finance that they have learnt that access to improved water infrastructure does not equate to access to improved service delivery, the discussions explored how to achieve the win-win combination of successful commercialisation and a pro-poor focus. Participants noted that the common perception of capacity development as training reinforces the focus on infrastructure (by addressing the technical skills required to set up water supply systems) and overlooks “social and conceptual” capacities required for tackling the underlying causes of unequal access and marginalisation of the poor.

The cases highlighted in the SNV Practice Brief show that it takes time and effort to reverse the top-down organisational culture in many water companies. Demonstrating that it pays to listen to their (poor) customers is a critical first step in ensuring access to sustainable water and sanitation to the remaining unserved populations.

Download the Brief on the SNV Website at:

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