Water Services in small towns: at the tail end of development

Mireia Tutusaus and Klaas Schwartz edited a special issue on “Water Services in small towns in developing countries” in the journal Water Policy. They highlight how water services management on the ground diverges from the models officially adopted, and they suggest two main explanations behind this discrepancy.

This special issue builds on ongoing conversations and research within the Water governance Chair Group on water services in small towns. In a previous post we already discussed the importance of paying more attention to the peculiarities of water services in small towns and the need to consider new paradigms to address small town needs, especially if we are serious about reaching the SDGs’ targets. We also pointed at the fact that water services in small town remain an uncharted field of research, with little case studies available to scholars and practitioners. That’s why, some time back in 2015 (already!), we thought of putting together a special issue that would reflect the ‘real’ approaches and experiences of water supply in small towns. Finally the special issue has been published by Water Policy! Bringing together empirical testimonies from Burkina Faso, Nepal, India, Ethiopia, and Mozambique, we highlight the challenges in implementing very reductionist water services models that fail to capture the peculiar realities of these towns. Thus, a considerable discrepancy exists between the models as they are described on paper and continue to be promoted, and how they are implemented on the ground.

For example, Adank, Godfrey, Butterworth, and Defere present the case of an evaluation framework of water sustainability for small towns in Ethiopia. This framework, originally designed for large urban settlements, included parameters that proved to be unachievable in small towns. Yet those parameters remained in the framework contributing to the portrayal of small towns as underperforming based on criteria that were not applicable to begin with. The lack of adjustments to the original model often lead to a dual system of actual operations and an associated level of performance as it is practiced, and a paper-based reality of how the model was initially designed and, by all official accounts, needs to continue working. A striking example of this duality is the delegation of services to local private operators in Mozambique (Tutusaus, Cardoso, and Vonk). This case suggests that delegating management to the local private sector in small towns of Mozambique is much more relational in nature and rely much less on the ‘arts and tricks of the private sector’ to efficiently operate system that one would be able to deduce from the contracts and tendering procedure documentation. Similarly Lele, Madhyastha, Sulagna, Dhavamani, and Srinivasan describe how small towns in India are expected to source their water needs from surface water only. This under the assumption that operators in these towns are better, or limited even, to operate a specific type of (simple) technology. In reality, operators in small towns serve their users from different sources, and their accompanying (often complex) technologies. All these models, and other collected in the special issue, continue to prevail as written in paper, mostly reinforcing the assumptions under which these are made and the principles they promote: either that private sector operators bring with them efficiency and sustainable services automatically, or that the existing operators – usually not associated to the private sector directly – lack the capacity to improve and adjust to more complex realities.

What we find striking in each and every one of the cases collected – and perhaps most disheartening – is the lack of feedback into the original models, that these very prevalent adaptations reveal. But why would this happen? We propose two explanations.

First, underlying the challenge of models for small towns and the requirement of local adaptations is the tension between the need for simple models and the complexity and diversity of small towns. Working with models requires simplifications, while acknowledging all these adaptations is at odds with the need of national implementing agencies (and donors) to scale up. Models should provide sufficiently simplified boundaries of reality for them to be able to travel from context to context. But, we argue, they should also at some point perhaps have shown that they do work, or deliver desired results before they travel, or persist.

Our second thought is related to the capacity of these models to hide the principles that build them, allowing dogmas of commercial viability, financial sustainability, efficiency, and professionalism to persist. Short distances between logical cause and effect relationships, even if not necessarily proved, seem to travel easier than complex explanations for which effects cannot be predicted. For example, that a private operator will bring efficiency, raise funds, and operate increasingly complex technologies is taken as a given. Not documenting these adaptations only helps but to maintain these, not necessarily holding, relationships. Working with models as packaged solutions does also not help to unravel the real capacities, as well as the relationships between capacities, interests, and actors.

We invite you to read the interesting cases collected in the special issue and we hope to keep on spinning the conversation about what required simplifications for management do to the configuration of water services in small towns.

Featured image: Water standpost from borehole scheme (Tanzania) | Government of the United Republic of Tanzania / Rashid Mbago | CC BY 2.0

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