The big problem of neglecting small towns

Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized (Margaret Atwood)

Water systems in small towns have kept me busy for the last three years. Certainly, they have not attracted mainstream attention.  Still today, people look surprised -–if I am lucky- and mostly puzzled every time I raise the issue of small towns. It is as if they were thinking…why would you want to research that? And sometimes I understand them. Because after all small towns are, well…, just that, small!

Small, and therefore simple. Small, and therefore not interesting. Small, and therefore perhaps not that important. But as Anita Roddick (founder of the Body Shop) once said ‘if you think you are too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito’. And that is the point that together with colleagues we try to raise. We wonder how we can seriously and meaningfully discuss extending basic services for all, while disregarding small towns altogether.

Percentage of households lacking piped water, flush toilet, and electricity by size of urban area and geographic region. Source: Cohen (2006)

Much of academic (urban) literature on water services depicts or is dedicated to understanding big or major urban centers. These cities have often been centers of transfer, administration or economic activity and as a result have accumulated major flows of migrations. Likewise, development fora, in an effort to identify where attention -and consequently funds -should be dedicated to eradicate the highest concentrations of poverty, have focused their work in these large urban centers. Agendas of research or development rarely acknowledge small towns as a different reality. Often, small towns go disregarded because they do not qualify as clearly urban, neither as clearly rural areas (Satterthwaite, 2006). In fact, what we know today about urbanization of small towns is understood through ‘big theories’ on urban development that lack reflection on the actual processes in small towns, making the generalization and use of these theories to small urban centers poor, if not impossible (Bell and Jayne, 2009: 684).

The importance of explicitly incorporating small towns as a unit of analysis and a way of understanding urbanization resonates in the efforts initiated to develop theories applicable and inspired by the realities of cities in the Global South. The same way urban theories produced in the West (North) are increasingly discarded to (better) understand the cities of the South, we run the same risk of misrepresenting (and misunderstanding) small towns if we reduce them to simplistic characterizations, or we make use of urbanization references developed for big urban centers. We need to understand and characterize better these ‘grey areas’ (the urban areas ‘in between’) if universal access to improved water supply and sanitation services is to be made a reality. In fact, we would need to work towards the development of new understandings, perhaps even new paradigms that would provide room for new, and different,  approaches to examine and define, in greater clarity, small towns in the development of basic services (Hopkins, 2003: 5).

In understanding the provision of water and sanitation services, there is still not much available beyond the broad understanding that small towns surpass the needs of typically rural systems, but have yet to achieve the scale designed for typically urban systems. Despite the incipient efforts in readdressing this problem, ‘literature on small towns shows a striking degree of unanimity’ (Ryan and Adank, 2014: 4).  As if several authors and their organizations were drawing from and recycling a limited number of primary resources. The topic has not been broadly picked up by academia besides a few exceptions (Mugabi, and Njiru, 2006). The discussions around water services in small towns remains documented mainly by development and advocacy agencies. Often times, geared at defining ‘implementable’ direct solutions, or quickly readjusting existing urban or rural models because ‘they have worked elsewhere’.

We believe that time is of the essence to revert this bias and provide meaningful knowledge regarding the development of (infra)structures that distribute water in small towns if we are serious about giving the SDGs a chance to be fulfilled, and water made available for all. Small towns included. Within the Water Governance Chair group at IHE Delft we are enthusiastic in contributing to this and we are taking that ‘mosquito’ to bed.

For more information on this topic visit:

The Water Services Management Group at IHE Delft

The project SMALL supporting the development of applicable and sustainable water and sanitation provision models for small towns of Sub-Saharan Africa

Water Policy Special Issue Call for Papers: Service Modalities for Water and Sanitation Services in Small Towns in the Global South


Bell, D. and Jayne, M. (2009). Small cities? Towards a research agenda. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 33 (3): 683-699.
Hopkins, R. (2003). An Alternative Perspective on WSS services (including the ‘Grey Area’). Town Water Supply and Sanitation Services Volume 3. Companion Paper A1. Bank Netherlands Water Partnership Project #043. The World  Bank Group. Washington, DC.
Ryan, P. and Adank, M (2010). Global Best Practices in the Management of Small Towns Water Supplies. TPP Work Document (May 2010). IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre.
Satterthwaite, D. (2006). Outside the Large Cities: the demographic importance of small urban centers and large villages in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Human Settlements Discussion Paper – Urban Change 3. International Institute for Environment and Development. London.


You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. Heather says:

    Great article. The simple fact that a town is regarded as small doesn’t eliminate the need for equal water access – or any other resource for that matter. Thanks for your thoughts!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *